You Are Your Brain, So Don’t Blame Your Brain

By Neuroskeptic | November 5, 2016 11:57 am

“You shouldn’t blame lying on the brain”, according to Prof. Richard Gunderman writing in The Conversation.

Gunderman notes the media interest in a recent paper about how brain activity ‘adapts’ to lying. CNN, for instance, covered the study with the headline: “Lying may be your brain’s fault, honestly“. Gunderman doesn’t like this idea:

There is the suggestion that a behavior such as lying can be explained “mechanistically.” Saying so implies the brain is a mechanism that can be accounted for in purely mechanistic terms. In fact, however, calling the brain a machine vastly oversimplifies it… no analysis of the brain as gray matter, electrical circuitry, or neuro-chemistry makes the leap from machinery to our experience of the world… as any reader of Shakespeare knows, a lie is something far richer than any pattern of brain activation.

Hmm. Gunderman seems to be saying that because of the mystery of consciousness, the brain can’t be ‘a machine’. But what else can it be? It is an extremely complex machine, to be sure, and we don’t understand how it works, but we know that it is a complex physical system, made up of innumerable interacting parts. As for the idea that brain activity is not sufficiently rich to produce something like a lie, I think this underestimates just how rich and complex the brain is.

Gunderman goes on to say that:

Perhaps the most dangerous misapprehension that can flow from new findings in brain science is reflected in the CNN and PBS headlines: the notion that lying is “your brain’s fault” or that “the brain keeps lying.” The idea, it seems, is that lying is something that happens in and by the brain, much as a dysrhythmia happens in the heart or strangulation happens in the bowel.

In reality, of course, lying is not the fault of the brain but the person to whom the brain belongs.

Regular readers will recall that I have myself often criticized the idea of ‘blaming the brain’ for our misbehaviours. But this doesn’t mean I agree with Gunderman here. On the contrary, I think that lying is ‘something that happens in and by the brain’, a view that Gunderman rejects. But it doesn’t stop at lying: every human thought and behaviour, good, bad or indifferent, happens in the brain, and this is why it makes no sense to say that the brain is to blame for any particular behaviour.

Similarly, whereas Gunderman draws an opposition between ‘the brain’ and ‘the person to whom the brain belongs’, I don’t think there is one. And this is the point: if I am my brain, then I cannot shift responsibility from myself onto my brain – because my brain’s responsibility is my own. In other words, Gunderman is right to object to the idea of blaming the brain, but wrong about why. It’s because there is no ‘person’ separate from the brain that we can’t blame our brains.


  • Chris Filo Gorgolewski
  • ID9192

    So you are saying that your brain wrote this article and you had nothing to do with it! Didn’t you have an intention to write this article before you wrote it? Yes, the brain is involved in producing mental activity that we directly experience, but what the organ brain does is to perform a mediating role for mental phenomena to happen. In other words, this mental activity we experience is directly related to our human experience. Regarding the study “brain activity ‘adapts’ to lying” we can also hypothesize a situation relating to telling the truth – for example, consider a situation where telling the truth that may depreciate our ego (e.g. having to tell someone that we failed an exam or that we have terminal illness). This can be difficult to do, but once one gets used to revealing such things; it would become easier to do (which is good because it would bring one the peace of accepting such things as well – I know people who feel this way). So, ultimately, it is not brain/neuroscience that is involved, but direct human experience or psychology.

    • Neuroskeptic

      No, I’m saying my brain wrote this article and I did have something to do with it, because I am my brain.

      • ID9192

        I would say that ‘you are your mind’ – because it is the mind that knows about the brain as well. The brain is just another organ in the body that cannot talk for itself.

        • Mankoi

          “I would say that ‘you are your mind’ – because it is the mind that knows about the brain as well.” Is there a reason why the brain can’t know about itself? Mind and brain is a useful distinction, certainly, but I think it’s more useful to look at the mind as a subset of the brain. Not all the brain is devoted to the mind, but you can’t meaningfully remove the mind from the brain. The mind does not exist except as a function of the brain.

          • ID9192

            When considering this issue, we need to look at two levels of analyses: one is the third-person level of analyses (what you are doing now). The other is the moment-by-moment manifestation of the “stream of consciousness” (remember that we only experience one thought moment at a time, as a fast-flowing mind-stream) – this level of analyses is equivalent to objectively understanding subjective experience. The following peer-reviewed journal article describes this:

          • Mankoi

            Neither your statement, nor the article really answers my question though: Why does the fact that the mind knows about the brain mean the mind can’t be part of the brain? Why can the brain not be a machine that knows about itself? If you study stream of consciousness to learn about the brain, that doesn’t mean you aren’t studying part of the brain to learn about the brain.

          • ID9192

            One can study the brain as a machine if they wish to do so – there is no problem in that. However we need to remember that even statements such as “the brain works as a machine,” “the mind is part of the brain,” or other considerations about these issues are thoughts in one’s mind that arises and ceases. Consider looking at a tree and describing it: here, visual consciousness is followed by thoughts. You can also examine the brain and describe it, and here too, visual consciousness is followed by thoughts. What you need to always remember is that there are TWO very different levels of analyses. Consider studying how the water cycle works (water evaporating from lakes, etc., forming clouds, rain falling, etc.) – such investigations (carried out from a third-person perspective) can have various practical applications. In terms of the ‘mind’ however, these investigations represent visual consciousness followed by thoughts.

          • Mankoi

            Again, I follow what you’re saying, but I fail to see the relevance. The question is: Can we define a person as their brain? The fact that the mind can think about itself, and changes by doing so, doesn’t seem to point one way or the other.

            Secondly, you keep mentioning two levels of analyses, but you never describe what the first person analysis is, or how it’s done. The article isn’t much help either. It offers no indications that I can find as to what a first person analysis would entail, how it would be conducted, or how it would be interpreted. Even the section on practical application boils down, essentially, to “Studying meditation could be helpful.”

          • ID9192

            The brain is just an organ in the body – so, I would not define a person as a ‘brain’ just like I would not define a person as a ‘liver.’ In the article I sent, the two levels are clearly explained (there is a separate section) – perhaps you need to take your time and read it leisurely. If you are not capable of understanding it, just forget about it! I understand it well and so do several people I know.

      • Sylvester Fernandes

        Lying and deception is a survival (subconscious) instinct cf. predator/prey relationship camouflage. Only when morals are invoked at a conscious level, then the mind recognizes it as a problem!

  • Niv Reggev

    Mudrik & Maoz identify this dualism as the double-subject fallacy. See their 2015 JOCN paper

    • Neuroskeptic

      I agree with them.

      In some cases, I think it is OK to use “my brain” as a kind of metaphorical way of saying “some part of my brain” e.g. if I say “My brain won’t let me forget X” then we all know what this means, and it isn’t really a dualistic statement, it’s a reference to the involuntary nature of memory.

      But in many cases such language does have a dualistic implication e.g. “My brain made me lie”.

  • Charles David

    I have two degrees in psychology. My belief that lying is exclusively in the brain or that we are our brain is canceled by a difficult psychological concept it’s called baloney.

  • Jonathan Led Larsen

    Something in your use of the machine as a model for the brain/mind doesn’t make sense. Machines are made by us. But even the most crazy-complex machine is just a really complex version of a wind-up toy. Yes, perhaps it is okay to study aspects of the brain as if it is a machine. But to conclude that it IS a machine does not follow. And “But what else can it be?” is a very poor argument :-)

    • Mankoi

      “And “But what else can it be?” is a very poor argument :-)”

      I disagree, actually. We’ve seen one model. Brain as a machine. You say it doesn’t make sense, but where doesn’t it make sense? What doesn’t it explain? Consciousness? It explains that in a couple possible ways. As a byproduct (much as a windup toy might generate heat) or as a form of output generated by the machine, which the machine then processes as input (it’s a very complex machine after all). Either way fits the machine model. Free will? People may object to the machine idea on that grounds, but that’s not an actual reason why it’s wrong. I’d argue the brain as a machine doesn’t even really contradict the idea of free will. Obviously you’re making your choices based on some kind of reason. They may not be good reasons, but your past experiences, feelings, emotions, and future plans dictate your choices. Those are all part of the machine here.

      So… really, what else can it be? Either your brain works on a chain of causality. You get input that causes this to happen, which causes this that and the other, and you get some form of output, as conscious thought, or some form of action. Or… your thoughts an actions have a random element. That’s fine. You can make a machine that throws a die and does it next action based on the output. Random factors and machines aren’t mutually exclusive. Finally, you could say there’s no causal chain. The only way this model works is with some sort of non-scientific element, like a soul. While that’s a fine personal belief, it’s just that: a personal belief.

      So… really, what else can it be? Because if you can’t point to flaws in the current model, and you have no alternative model, I don’t see how the machine model isn’t the best one.

      • Jonathan Led Larsen

        I am still not at all convinced that ‘what else can it be’ is a sound scientific argument. If you cannot explain in positive terms why a model fits, perhaps you shouldn’t spring to conclusions at this point.

        You’re arguing that some kind of magic arises because the brain is very complex – complex in ways which no known machine can match. I simply do not see why this is an argument that the brain is a machine in any known sense of the word ‘machine’ – except as a very very abstract metaphor of ‘something with parts interacting’. Sure, if you say that the brain is a very complex machine, which does something no other known machine does – such as producing consciousness as a sort of byproduct – then sure, the brain can be considered a machine. But it takes a really huge leap of imagination, doesn’t it? So why claim it so vigorously?

        Perhaps the brain-as-machine is a good way to think, if you’re an engineer trying to make a machine that mimics the brain. If you’re – say – a teacher, therapist, artist, parent or whatever it may be much better to think of the brain as a muscle, a plant, an open space or something completely different. You may get much better results!

        What I’m saying is that the neuroscientific account of life/the brain often forgets that the machine is just a metaphor – and for a lot of purposes (educational politics, for example) it is not a very good metaphor.

        But sure, if you stretch the concept of a machine way beyond any known machine then for a very narrow niche-purpose, you may be right: what else can it be!

  • Jonathan Led Larsen

    … I think it would be better to consider the brain… a plant!

  • Uncle Al

    One doubts a brain is smart enough to understand how it works. Body temp. 310.15 kelvins, is 2.67×10^(-2) eV thermal energy. Let’s get all grant-fundy.

    The current Progressive bafflegab is brain phosphorus-31 nuclear spins quantum entangled into delocalized global computation. In Earth’s 0.4 gauss magnetic field, the body temperature spin-flip energy ga pis 689 Hz, 2.85 × 10^(-12) eV. Stat mech laughs.

    Be a hyper-genius! Embed your head within a strong uniform magnetic field…an MRI tunnel. The spin-flip energy gap is 17.24 MHz, 7.13×10^(-8) ev. Stat mech laughs. MRI all diversity heads until they spin straight? Nah. Teach them to do headstands, for the true intelligence engine is bones.

  • 7eggert

    You are also the rest of your body, so in the sense “my arm is too short to reach …”, you can e.g. say “my brain isn’t built/educated/wired incorrectly/… for the task”.

    I think Scott Adams description of “moist robot” is helpful, our conscious part is analyzing and influencing a biological system that sometimes does what we want, sometimes does what conscious-me wants and sometimes does whatever animal-me wants. Also conscious-me preprogrammed to discard the discrepancies that arise from this situation.

  • José E. Burgos

    I don’t know where this ridiculous idea that we are our brains came from. Certainly, at least, it is neither presupposed nor entailed by any standard philosophy of mind (viz., dualism (whether substance or property, whether or not Cartesian), mind-brain identity theory, or functionalism). To me, it seems like an abomination of cognitive neuroscientists.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Surely it is entailed by mind-brain identity theory?

      • José E. Burgos

        No it is not. The only way is for identity theorists to assume that we are our minds, and nowhere in any formulation of the mind-brain identity theory is such an assumption found.

    • Mankoi

      Useful as philosophy can be, I don’t see how a failure for an idea to pop up in standard philosophy of mind invalidates the idea. Either there is evidence that shows the idea can’t be so, or is extremely unlikely to be so, or there isn’t. In the latter case, perhaps it should be considered by philosophy so the merits and implications of such a model can be weighed. If there is a reason why it can’t be the case, that’s your argument there, not that it doesn’t show up in philosophy.

      • José E. Burgos

        The mind-brain identity theory has always been presented as a working empirical hypothesis to be scientifically tested. So, we’re talking about a scientific, not a philosophical theory.

        • Mankoi

          In your comment, you said that “that we are our brains came from. Certainly, at least, it is neither presupposed nor entailed by any standard philosophy of mind” I didn’t bring up mind-brain identity theory. I said that the failure of the idea to show up in philosophy has no bearing on the validity of the idea. I’m not sure why you’re bringing up mind-brain identity theory, given you said in your other thread it didn’t cover this idea.

          • José E. Burgos

            Yeah… whatever… too depressed to reply…

          • Neuroskeptic

            Trumps come and go, but philosophy is eternal.

          • José E. Burgos

            Quite true… some consolation there… Appreciate it… But… what if Trump unleashes a nuclear war that finishes us all? Of what good is philosophy if we’re all dead? Still depressed… perhaps not as much… Wait… unless there is some form of mental afterlife? Alas, if we are our brains and die with them, there is no possibility of mental afterlife… or is there?

          • Mankoi

            I had the same worry… I do kinda have some consolidation there. Namely… Trump may well try to start a nuclear war, but I’m fairly confident the military would stage a coup before actually doing it. I know military coup is really, really far from comforting, but… well it’s better than nuclear Armageddon anyway.

          • José E. Burgos

            Hope you’re right… I’m in Mexico, and the peso already plummeted 14% between last night and now… And of course there is this wall thing that he expects us to pay, on pain of some nasty consequences… one might well be military invasion to plunder our natural resources (take the oil…)

  • Elaine Dolan

    It’s like sayin’ my penis did it, of rape.

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  • Kirby Mahard

    Am I really though? I have yet to see any sound explanation of how the brain can produce something as radically different as matter at all. And yet, here I am, self-aware being with free will that is supposed to arise out of something completely physical.

    Why do most scientists fail to see how huge the gap between matter and the mind really is?

    You can show me the most detailed map of the workings of the human brain and it still wouldn’t explain why any of this can possibly produce consciousness. Heck, you can’t even *define* consciousness.

    • Hibernia86

      Yes, obviously consciousness shows that there are laws of nature that science hasn’t begun to understand. But I think that too many people think that just because science can’t yet explain something that therefore religion can. But it doesn’t work that way. Science is the best way of understanding the world and religion is based on mythology so you are better waiting for science to understand consciousness than you are to turn to religion for the answer.

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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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