What is the difference between the brain and the mind?
For most people the two are virtually identical. In common parlance people confuse them frequently.
What does the latest research in brain functioning have to do with the mind? Can cognitive neuroscience solve all of mankind’s problems or will it simply talk us out of our freedom?
Everyone is interested in the new research that is coming out of neuroscience laboratories. As often happens, those who seek funding for these studies tend to oversell them. They are now promising to find explanations for all of human behavior.
At that point, you can kiss your freedom goodbye. Or better, you can if you still believe that you have any.
Strangely enough, brain research has very little to do with mental functioning. Ultimately, that is not such a bad thing.
It is worth the trouble to take some time to try to understand how mind and brain differ from each other. I have posted about the topic before… here and here, for example. I will doubtless do so again.
Now Sally Satel has co-authored a book on the difference between mind and brain. It’s title: Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. By way of an introduction to her book she has written a short essay on the topic for The Atlantic.
In some diseases, Satel writes, brain chemistry is the issue:
When scientists develop diagnostic tests or a medications for, say, Alzheimer's disease, they investigate the hallmarks of the condition: amyloid plaques that disrupt communication between neurons, and neurofibrillary tangles that degrade them.
We know well, Satel explains, that addiction has a decided effect on brain chemistry. Does that mean that the addict has no self-control and no responsibility for his behavior? Satel says that it does not.
In her words:
Thanks to heavy promotion by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, addiction has been labeled a "brain disease."
The logic for this designation, as explained by former director Alan I. Leshner, is that "addiction is tied to changes in brain structure and function." True enough, repeated use of drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and alcohol alter the neural circuits that mediate the experience of pleasure as well as motivation, memory, inhibition, and planning -- modifications that we can often see on brain scans.
The critical question, though, is whether this neural disruption proves that the addict's behavior is involuntary and that he is incapable of self-control. It does not.
Continuing, she points out:
Yet to treat addicts and guide policy, it is important to understand how addicts think. It is the minds of addicts that contain the stories of how addiction happens, why they continue to use, and, if they decide to stop, how they manage. The answers can't be divined from an examination of his brain, no matter how sophisticated the probe.
Of course, addicts convince themselves that they have no self-control. They are persuaded that they cannot resist temptation. Thus, they absolve themselves of all responsibility, and persuade themselves to take drugs.
The scientistic idea that addicts have no free will works well to help addicts to stay addicted.
Naturally, defense attorneys have happily seized the neuroscientist excuse.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: His brain made him do it.
In Satel’s words:
The problem with these claims is that, with rare exception, neuroscientists cannot yet translate aberrant brain functions into the legal requirements for criminal responsibility -- intent, rational capacity and self-control.
What we know about many criminals is that they did not control themselves. That is very different from being unable to do so. To date, brain science cannot allow us to distinguish between these alternatives. What's more, even abnormal-looking brains, have owners who are otherwise quite normal.
As I and others have suggested, the end point of this logical train is the elimination of personal freedom and personal responsibility.
Respected researchers are moving in this direction:
Although we generally think of ourselves as free agents who make choices, a number of prominent scholars claim that we are mistaken. "Our growing knowledge about the brain makes the notions of volition, culpability, and, ultimately, the very premise of the criminal justice system, deeply suspect," contends biologist Robert Sapolsky.
To be sure, everyone agrees that people can be held accountable only if they have freedom of choice. But, there is a longstanding debate about the kind of freedom that is necessary. Some contend that we can be held accountable as long as we are able to engage in conscious deliberation, follow rules, and generally control ourselves.
Others, like Sapolsky, disagree, insisting that our deliberations and decisions do not make us free because they are dictated by neuronal circumstances. They say that, as we come to understand the mechanical workings of our brains, we'll be compelled to adopt a strictly utilitarian model of justice in which criminals are "punished" solely as a way to change their behavior, not because they truly deserve blame.
If no one deserves blame, no one deserves praise. If no one deserves the shame of failure, no one can earn pride in achievement.