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We are more than our brains: The cerebral mystique - Printable Version

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We are more than our brains: The cerebral mystique - C C - May 10, 2018

EXCERPT: . . . a cultural phenomenon I call the ‘cerebral mystique’ – a pervasive idealisation of the brain and its singular importance, which protects traditional conceptions about differences between mind and body, the freedom of will and the nature of thought itself.

The mystique is expressed in multiple forms, ranging from ubiquitous depictions of supernatural, ultra-sophisticated brains in science fiction and the popular media to more sober, scientifically supported conceptions of cognitive function that emphasise inorganic qualities or confine mental processes to neural structures. This idealisation is almost reflexively adopted by laypeople and scientists alike (including me!) and it is compatible with both materialist and spiritual world views. The cerebral mystique might help to increase enthusiasm for neuroscience – a valued consequence – but it drastically limits our ability to analyse human behaviour and address important social problems.

[...] The cerebral mystique exaggerates the brain’s contribution to human behaviour, and for some it also prompts remarkable visions of the brain’s role in the future of humanity itself. In technophilic circles, there is increasing talk of ‘hacking the brain’ to improve human cognition. [...] Two companies now offer to extract and preserve the brains of dying ‘clients’ [...] where the brain can be restored to function in some form or analysed in sufficient detail to ‘upload’ the mind into a computer. This venture takes the cerebral mystique to its logical endpoint, fully embracing the fallacy that human life is reducible to brain function and that the brain is just a physical embodiment of the soul.

[...] The more we feel that our brains encapsulate our essence as individuals, and the more we believe that our thoughts and actions simply emanate from the bundle of flesh in our heads, the less sensitive we will be to the role of the society and environment around us, and the less we will do to nurture our shared culture and resources – whether in the context of criminal behaviour, creativity, mental illness or any other aspect of human life.

The brain is special because it does not distil us to an essence, it unites us to our surroundings in a way a soul never could. If we value our own experiences, we must protect and strengthen the many factors that enrich our lives from both inside and outside, so that as many people as possible can benefit from them now and in the time to come. We must realise that we are much more than our brains....