A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves

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9781250044822: A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves

What if our soundest, most reasonable judgments are beyond our control?

Despite 2500 years of contemplation by the world's greatest minds and the more recent phenomenal advances in basic neuroscience, neither neuroscientists nor philosophers have a decent understanding of what the mind is or how it works. The gap between what the brain does and the mind experiences remains uncharted territory. Nevertheless, with powerful new tools such as the fMRI scan, neuroscience has become the de facto mode of explanation of behavior. Neuroscientists tell us why we prefer Coke to Pepsi, and the media trumpets headlines such as "Possible site of free will found in brain." Or: "Bad behavior down to genes, not poor parenting."
Robert Burton believes that while some neuroscience observations are real advances, others are overreaching, unwarranted, wrong-headed, self-serving, or just plain ridiculous, and often with the potential for catastrophic personal and social consequences. In A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind, he brings together clinical observations, practical thought experiments, personal anecdotes, and cutting-edge neuroscience to decipher what neuroscience can tell us – and where it falls woefully short. At the same time, he offers a new vision of how to think about what the mind might be and how it works.
A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind is a critical, startling, and expansive journey into the mysteries of the brain and what makes us human.

Les informations fournies dans la section « Synopsis » peuvent faire référence à une autre édition de ce titre.

About the Author :

Robert Burton, MD is a physician, journalist, and author. A graduate of Yale University and University of California at San Francisco medical school, he was formerly chief of the Division of Neurology at Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital and Associate Chief of the Department of Neurosciences. Burton's work has appeared in Salon and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others, and he frequently is invited to speak about the brain, the mind, neuroscience, and philosophy of science. The author of On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not and three critically acclaimed novels, he lives in Sausalito, California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

1 • The Shape of Your Mind
 
 
It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life.
—attributed to Branch Rickey1
All complex biological systems—which include you and me—use sensory feedback to monitor their environment. We are made aware of the external world through senses such as sight and sound; we know our interior physical world through internally generated feelings such as hunger and thirst. As the vast majority of thought originates outside of consciousness, it seems reasonable that we would also have evolved a sensory system for informing the conscious mind what cognitive activity is going on subconsciously. Without a method for being aware of this activity, it is hard to imagine what role the conscious mind would have, or even if there would be such a thing as a mind.
If we were cars, our minds would have LED displays telling us what is going on under the hood. But being subtle creatures rather than machines, we have a far more sophisticated system for monitoring subliminal brain activity. Instead of a mental dashboard full of flashing lights, we have evolved an array of cognitive feelings. For simplicity, I’ve used the phrase “cognitive feelings” to refer to those mental phenomena that aren’t normally categorized as emotions or moods, but rather are the type of feeling we associate with thinking. These include such diverse mental states as a sense of knowing, causation, agency, and intention.
To be meaningful, these feelings must bear some relationship to the cognitive activity they are announcing. Just as the feeling of thirst must trigger the desire for drinking fluids, an awareness of a subliminal mental calculation must feel something like a calculation. And here’s the rub. Thirst and hunger are readily accepted as arising from our bodies, but feelings about our involuntarily generated subconscious thoughts often feel like deliberate actions of the conscious mind.
Take an example from the world of visual perception. Imagine yourself at a local football game. You are focused on the game and oblivious of the surrounding faces of spectators. Then, while you are shifting your gaze to look at the scoreboard, your visual system subliminally detects a face in the crowd that it recognizes as your old friend Sam. Your visual cortex compares the incoming image of the face with previously stored memories of Sam’s face and calculates the probability that the face is Sam’s. If the likelihood is high enough, the brain sends the image of the face up into consciousness along with a separate feeling of recognition. You feel as though you consciously assessed the face and determined it was Sam. Depending upon the strength of this feeling of recognition, you will also sense the degree of likelihood that this facial recognition is correct. This might range from a feeling of merely “maybe” or “it could be, but on the other hand…” to a sense of utter certainty.
A visual input of a face, though not initially making any conscious impression, has triggered two separate unconscious brain activities. One is exclusively mechanical and without any associated feeling tone—the comparison of Sam’s face with all other faces previously stored in memory. The other is purely subjective sensation—the feeling of recognition. The two arrive in consciousness as a unit—the visual perception of Sam’s face and the simultaneous feeling that it is indeed Sam. Even though this process occurs outside of awareness, we feel it is the result of the act of conscious recognition. Such lower-level brain activities are experienced at a higher level as voluntary acts.
Because we know the brain is superb at subliminal pattern recognition, we find it relatively easy to concede that recognition doesn’t take place consciously, despite how it might feel. But there are a host of mental sensations that are so intimately linked with our conception of conscious thought that the idea of them not being under our conscious control seems far-fetched.
In my previous book, On Being Certain, I introduced the concept of involuntary mental sensations—spontaneously occurring feelings about our thoughts that are experienced as aspects of conscious thought. Though we feel that they are the result of conscious rumination and represent rational conclusions, they are no more deliberate than feelings of love or anger. My focus was on feelings of knowing, certainty, and conviction—feelings about the quality of our thoughts that range from vague hunches and gut feelings to utter conviction and a profound “aha.”
I now realize that feelings of knowing are a small part of a larger mental sensory system that includes the sense of self, the sense of choice, control over one’s thoughts and actions, feelings of justice and fairness, and even how we determine causation. Collectively, these involuntary sensations make up much of the experience of having a mind. In addition, they profoundly influence how we conceptualize what a mind “is.”
It is vitally important to realize that the cognitive aspect of thought—the calculation—has no feeling tone. Our entire experience of these calculations comes via separate feelings that accompany them into consciousness. For example, though contrary to personal experience, there is no way to objectively determine the origin of a thought. When an idea “occurs to me” or feels as though it “popped into my head,” I tend to label it as arising from the unconscious. On the other hand, if I have the feeling of directly thinking a thought, I am likely to conclude that it is the result of conscious deliberation. The distinction between conscious and unconscious thought is nothing more than our experience of involuntary mental sensations.
This separation between thought (the silent mental calculation) and feelings about thoughts is central to any inquiry into what the mind might be. We know the mind only through our experience; it isn’t something that can be pinned on a specimen board, weighed or measured, poked or prodded. Seeing how our sense of a mind arises from the messy and often hard-to-describe interaction of disparate involuntary sensations is a necessary first step toward any understanding of what the mind can say about itself.
Our Brains, Ourselves
A car cuts you off on the freeway and you get enraged; you honk, flip the driver the finger, fume, and carry on about this brutish lack of manners being a surefire indication of civilization’s impending demise. Your spouse, for the thousandth time, urges you to learn a little self-control. Of course, dear, you halfheartedly agree, your mind oscillating between further thoughts of revenge and the painful recognition that you have just acted like a two-year-old.
You quickly drum up a bevy of seemingly reasonable explanations—a stressful day, a poor night’s sleep, the new anti-hypertensive medication you started a couple weeks ago, long-standing control issues and unresolved childhood slights, your growing apprehension over your declining IRA account. On the other hand, your father had a hair trigger and was prone to seemingly unprovoked tirades and furies. Perhaps you inherited some angry strands of tightly wound DNA. If only there was a straightforward method for self-examination. But your mind reels at the seemingly infinite combination of possibilities, as though the very concept of self-awareness is an overrated myth, a low-probability rubber crutch for the emotionally desperate.
Nevertheless, you have to start somewhere. Though changing your genes is presently out of the question, perhaps you can address your financial concerns. Back at home, you review your IRA portfolio. Your best friend, a financial wizard, gives you a thousand reasons why stock prices are at a generational low and insists that you should “buy, buy, buy.” His arguments are persuasive. You boot up your online broker and poise your finger over the Buy button; but, as though controlled by invisible forces, you have a complete “change of heart” and sell everything. You are puzzled by your behavior. It is as though you have lost control of yourself.
Later that night, flipping through a popular psychology magazine, you read that fMRI studies have shown that the brain region for controlling hand movements is activated before you are aware of making a decision to move your hand. Brain wave (EEG) studies confirm the finding. This can’t be, you think. You try a simple lab experiment. You think about moving your hand but don’t make the final decision to move it; your hand rests quietly in your lap, awaiting instructions. You then consciously decide to wiggle your fingers. You exert some effort, and, not surprisingly, your fingers wiggle on command.
But if the fMRI and EEG studies are correct, your experience of wiggling your fingers voluntarily is nothing more than a comforting illusion foisted on you by an unconscious with its own agenda. Only after the fact did your subconscious let “you” know what it had already decided and acted upon. Looking down at your hand as though it has a mind of its own, you wonder who exactly made the decision. “Who am I?” you ask yourself, at the same time wondering who is doing the asking and who is expected to answer.
To come up with anything remotely resembling a tentative answer to what the mind might be and do, we first need some working understanding of the placeholder for the mind—the self. A mind isn’t an impersonal organ like a liver or a spleen; it is an integral aspect of a self, a part of what makes us an individual as opposed to an object. It’s the center of our being, the main control panel for our thoughts and actions. The self’s central function—creating thoughts and actions—is commonly what we mean when we talk of a mind. Evolution isn’t a linguist. At a practical level, the mind and the self are inseparable. It is hard to imagine a functional self without a mind, and vice versa. Both are essential constituents of an “I.” When a patient with Alzheimer’s disease “loses his mind,” he is invariably described as having also lost his “selfhood.” Though we can readily create thought experiments about a brain in a vat, we cannot even begin to think of a mind in a jar. The mind needs to be physically embodied; there needs to be a something or someone that is having the thoughts and performing the actions. Fortunately, we have a built-in set of mechanisms for creating a visceral sense of a home for the mind—the physical self.
Where Am I?
Perhaps the most universal yet personal of all involuntary mental sensations is the feeling of where “you” exist in your body. Many of us have a very strong sense that the center of our being is a few inches behind our foreheads, just above our eyes. But, if we could take off the top of our skull and closely dissect each of our brains down to the subatomic level, we would find no homunculus, no little “I” running the ship, minding the store, holding the reins of our conscious actions, or even idly ruminating. The center of our being is nowhere to be found.
At the purely intellectual level, even the most science-impaired among us understand that mental states, no matter how seemingly psychological in origin, ultimately arise out of brain states. Everything we experience is generated by mindless brain cells and synapses. Nevertheless, we cannot shake the contrary feeling that there is a personal “I” that is sufficiently separate from these states to have an understanding of this proposition. As I write this statement, I have the undeniable feeling that there is a special “I” that is both writing and reading this sentence, and that this “I” resides within a larger unit over which I claim at least some degree of responsibility—my personal body.
It is impossible to imagine what it would feel like to lack a consistent sense of self. We couldn’t take complex actions, consider “what might have happened” in the past, contemplate a future, or make plans.2 Yes, it would be wonderful if we could occasionally flip a switch that would free us from the downside burden of perpetual self-involvement and internal dialogue, but that’s not the way the physical sense of self works. It is as involuntary as hunger and thirst.
For now, put aside considerations of personal aspects of a self—the narrative of your life that you tell yourself and others. I want to focus on the more basic physical sensations that collectively create the scaffolding of a self onto which you hang your personal memories, stories, and experiences, for it is this physical sense of self that creates the housing for our experience of a mind. We don’t experience our mind as being several blocks away in a saloon, nursing a drink while contemplating the universe. For most of us, most of the time, the mind resides within our personal sense of the dimensions of our self.
The spatial qualities of the experience of a mind arise from subconscious brain mechanisms. Our thoughts about the dimensions of mind aren’t similarly constrained by our biology. Conceptually, the mind can be anything that we imagine. This distinction between felt experience and theoretical views of a mind is critical to any larger understanding of what a mind “is.” To lay the groundwork, we first need to know how our experience of the dimensions of our minds shapes our investigation of our minds.
A basic tenet of neurological research is to break down a complex mental state into more manageable subcomponents. One method—studying patients who have had a discreet brain insult that clinically affects only one of these subcomponents—has been instrumental in providing a good practical model of how sensory systems work. For example, this technique has helped reveal that the visual system is composed of a number of specialized neural circuits (modules); each processes an aspect of vision such as lines, edges, color, or motion. Collectively they create a visual image. We will use this same approach to dissect out the various mental sensations that collectively create a sense of self.
To begin, listen to these three descriptions of how abnormal electrical brain activity can dramatically alter our sense of self. As you read these histories, notice how the physical sense of self can be distinguished from the felt location of your particular first-person vantage point in the world.
CASE HISTORIES
Patient #1
A twenty-one-year-old man with a six-year history of poorly controlled seizures awakened with a peculiar dizzy feeling. He got out of bed but, when turning around, saw himself still lying in bed. He became angry about “this guy who I knew was myself and who would not get up and thus risk being late at work.” He tried to wake the sleeping body by shouting at it, then by trying to shake it and then repeatedly jumping on his “alter ego in the bed.” The body didn’t respond. Puzzled about his apparent double existence, the patient became frightened by his inability to tell which of the two he really was. Several times his bodily awareness switched from the one standing upright to the one lying in the bed. While in the lying-in-bed mode he felt quite awake but completely paralyzed and scared by the figure of himself bending over and beating him. He walked to his bedroom window, looked back to see his body still in bed. “In order to stop the intolerable feeling of being divided in two,” he jumped out the third-story window.
Fortunately, he landed in a bush and sustained only cuts and bruises. Neurological evaluation documented recurrent seizure activity triggered by a slow-growing tumor in the man’s left temporal lobe. The tumor was successfully removed.3
Patient #2
A fifty-five-year-old man with a history of seizures from age fourteen developed recurring stereotypical attacks of strange ...

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Description du livre St. Martin s Griffin, United States, 2014. Paperback. État : New. Language: English . Brand New Book. What if our soundest, most reasonable judgments are beyond our control?Despite 2500 years of contemplation by the world s greatest minds and the more recent phenomenal advances in basic neuroscience, neither neuroscientists nor philosophers have a decent understanding of what the mind is or how it works. The gap between what the brain does and the mind experiences remains uncharted territory. Nevertheless, with powerful new tools such as the fMRI scan, neuroscience has become the de facto mode of explanation of behavior. Neuroscientists tell us why we prefer Coke to Pepsi, and the media trumpets headlines such as Possible site of free will found in brain. Or: Bad behavior down to genes, not poor parenting. Robert Burton believes that while some neuroscience observations are real advances, others are overreaching, unwarranted, wrong-headed, self-serving, or just plain ridiculous, and often with the potential for catastrophic personal and social consequences. In A Skeptic s Guide to the Mind, he brings together clinical observations, practical thought experiments, personal anecdotes, and cutting-edge neuroscience to decipher what neuroscience can tell us and where it falls woefully short. At the same time, he offers a new vision of how to think about what the mind might be and how it works. A Skeptic s Guide to the Mind is a critical, startling, and expansive journey into the mysteries of the brain and what makes us human. N° de réf. du libraire AAS9781250044822

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