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Science; "Brain = Behavior"

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the Biology 202 at Bryn Mawr College. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. You're welcome to post here any thoughts that have arisen during the course this week (and to respond to thoughts others have posted).

Among the questions worth thinking about this week are the ideas of loopy science, of science as story, and the notion that "brain = behavior". Are these good summaries of observations? good stories? What observations do they not incorporate? What new questions do they raise?

Serendip Visitor's picture

Actually, that notion can be

Actually, that notion can be derived in so many ways. It is your brain that shapes up your behavior or may be the other way too. The signals from the brain, each of those, determine the way you are going to behave in a particular situation.

Simone Shane's picture

Belief vs. Desire

So, I know we may have moved on from this topic, but I just thought I'd share some of my thoughts. When we first started talking about this, I was reminded of a philosophy class I took in the spring of 2005 called Concepts of the Self. I was reading over a paper I had written on The Identity Theory that basically states that mental states (eg. pain) are identical to their corresponding physical states (eg. C fibers firing)1. This pretty much sounds to me like brain= behavior. The prompt of this paper asked us to consider an alien race that had the same mental states as humans, but did not share the same physical states and decide then whether human mental states were still then equal to human physical states. I don’t really know how this pertains, but I thought it was an interesting idea to put out there…

As for my own opinions, I am very hesitant to say that there is more to our behaviors than the brain. I’ll admit to have initially scoffed at many of the arguments championing Descartes and the mind body dualism due to their lack of empirical support. No two humans can share the exact same environment and even identical twins may have certain slight mutations rendering them different. Altruism has evolutionary benefits and morals are very culturally driven.

However, I did try and think of arguments on the other side to convince me of possible duality and began thinking of the idea that the first step to recovery is recognizing you have a problem. Is this the step where your mind conquers your brain? I still find this difficult. Couldn’t one say that it is merely another part of your brain checking the part of the brain causing the problem, once it has been exposed to an environment that has allowed it to override this other part of the brain? I hope that was coherent.

Similarly, I thought of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), where patients know that their obsessions and compulsions are not healthy but cannot control their actions. Again, is one of these inputs mind and the other brain? I can’t bring myself to say so.

These two examples come back to the main idea of metacognition or thought about thought. Is this where the mind comes in? I can’t say that I know the biological basis of metacognition, but I am interested in discovering it and making this point stronger.

I think it’s interesting though that, all this said and done, I still feel great unease at saying that there is no mind body distinction. However, unlike most people on this forum, my problem is with the absence of free will and agency. Indeed, I am a proponent of those who posted that we still do have free will and agency, but that its basis is the brain. One person alluded to the fact that with the mind = brain model, when our brain dies, so does our mind. I believe this is much more than a religious issue, as I myself am not at all religious. The idea that there is something more to a person than neurons firing and DNA transcribing can be an important thought to many people nearing death or (to a greater degree?) to those experiencing the loss of a loved one. It’s odd because I don’t know what I think about afterlife, but I feel an almost desperate hope that behaviors exist beyond death, beyond the brain.

Thus, the problem for me lies in the conviction that brain = behavior and the desire for there to be something more.


1 J.J.C. Smart, “The Topic-Neutral Approach,” The Philosophy of Mind, ed. V.C. Chappell, (Englewook Cliffs, New York: Prentice-Hall Inc, 1962).

Anna G.'s picture


This post was really interesting to me because it highlights a lot of the issues I think we are working to come to terms with. I like that you used the idea of mental states being equal to their physical states, which is what most people think of when they think brain = behavior.


 But in the example you used, pain, the reality is much more complex than that. There is pain when C fibers, a beta, and a delta fibers fire, but there is also pain in the absence of these fibers fire, pain in the absence of tissue damage, and firing of these fibers which do not result in pain.  This problem is one of the reasons that pain is so complex and hard to treat. Pain has a mental as well as social and linguistic component to it [in order for people to know a human is in pain requires vocalization (hr and other signs can be used, but most commonly it is spoken)]. This presents a problem because we cannot physically see what the physical state is that causes the mental state. However, it doesn't mean there isn't one. The theories that are emerging about pain in the absences of pain stimuli are based on the Gate Control theory propped by Melzack and Wall, which involves a feedback loop in the body. Using their theory a barrage of input into the dorsal root, can either cause the spinal cells that send messages to the brain to become abnormally active, or inactive. This abnormal firing can cause chronic pain, in the absence of what we would think of as painful stimuli. This hard part is figuring out how to treat this pain.


But I think this is a nice example that fits in well with the new theory we are proposing for the brain. There can be initial input that modifies a structure within the body that then has its own activity which can lead to an output. This doesn’t mean that brain does not equal behavior, but merely that there is a more complex relationship between the two than one may have thought.


I also think that the I-function that we have been introduced to last class gives the mind a place within the brain that allows for this dichotomy to exist, while showing that technically, it is all in the brain.


As for losing free will and agency when we accept this theory, I believe is something that worries people when it shouldn’t. Imagine its 9:55 am on a Tuesday, you have to get up and go to class. Or rather, you have the choice to. Do you go or not? YOU choose. You may use your brain to consciously weigh the options, or you may just unconsciously know you have to go, and get up and go. Either way, nothing was forcing you. You could have went either way. We have the ability to mold our behavior, and in that way, modify our brain. While our brain gives us the ability to think about what is right or wrong, by accepting this theory, we don’t give away any power of free will. If we said our free will was due to our “mind” we would still be limiting it by the constructions of what the mind is. The only reason this is appealing is because the mind could be anything, it gives people free reign to imagine limitless possibilities. While some people are more tied down by their brain, people with mental diseases, this doesn’t mean that people with fully functional brains “give over” control to their brain. Rather, their brain supplies the microscopic tools for us to make macroscopic decisions. While I think it would be interesting to look into the line between unconscious and conscious decisions, and how we make them, I don’t think this means we HAVE to do anything.

Anna G.'s picture

Walt Whitman on the body and soul...

I'm reading a book now that quotes Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass in what I think was an interesting and relevant view on this topic.


"Was someone asking to see the soul?

See, your own shape and countenance

Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main

Concern, and includes and is the soul."


His idea was that we don't HAVE a body, but that we ARE a body...which is something to think about.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Walt and Emily

Yes, something to think about indeed. Wonder what the relations were, if any, between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson?
evanstiegel's picture

From reading these posts and

From reading these posts and hearing what many had to say in last week's class, it is clear that our class is polarized in what we believe.  Many of us think that the brain is biological phenomenon rather than spiritual (as Skye said in a previous post) and vice versa.  From what we have learned and should have come to figure out, neither stance is the right one, or truth.  We believe one side or the other because that particular side is more useful for us.  For example, for those that believe there is some unexplained intangible force in our brain that is responsible for emotion and the like, maybe you find comfort in the fact that there is some greater force responsible for your unique emotion.   This is a comfort that stems from the fear of potential loss of agency or free will if the mind's action was solely a function of neurons.  Personally, I find comfort in the other view that the mind is a biological function.  I like this view because it simplifies a great deal for me.  I like the fact that I can indeed attribute the way I feel some time to some biological function rather that some other abstract force at work.  I am not totally disregarding the possibilty of some higher force.   Also, I do not feel discomfort or fear with idea that the mind as a biological machine therefore lacking agency or free will.  For me, I can still experience and savor certain feelings or emotions even though I attribute them to some chemical function.  I will reiterate again that neither side is necessarily true, but we choose to believe in one side or the other because we find either a comfort in that view or a fear of the other view.
eambash's picture


To respond to some of the things I heard in class on Tuesday...

Saying that humans are operated by neurons and chemicals does not, from what I can tell, mean that those neurons and chemicals operate the same way in all of us. I don't think choosing the "brain = behavior" model is the same thing as saying that we're all the same, that there's no free will, or that the brain doesn't interact with the environment. Instead, I think the effect of the environment on the brain demonstrates the biological basis for behavior. As some classmates have mentioned, we can see how drugs (both legal and illegal) affect our brain tissues and brain functions. We can see the physical effects of external, environmental input. Similarly, we can see things happening in the brain even without any input. And then there are many things we can see when looking through lenses but that we can't clearly associate with certain thoughts or ideas -- at least not yet. Imagine how much we could see a hundred years ago, either with our own eyes or with special tools, but didn't know how to identify until more recently!

Even if the huge descriptor "the brain" were to account for all of our behavior, that wouldn't take away from the intense, exciting mystery involved in behavior (and in the brain). Plus, if we CAN associate certain parts of the brain with certain behaviors and even certain thoughts, even though we didn't used to be able to do so, doesn't that show that as we fix, revise, and hone our scientific methods we just see more and more a) complexity and confusion and b) clarity?

I don't feel satisfied by the idea that a whole (ill-defined) section of behavior is to be labeled "the mind" and blocked off from biological exploration only for that reason. I'd rather assume that there's a lot we don't know - and keep looking. I'm exhilarated by the idea that scientific exploration always yields more and more questions. For everything we see, or learn HOW to see, there are millions more things we still don't understand. For me, that's a reason to keep working, to think, "We aren't YET in the know because we haven't YET found the right means." For me, it's all too much to chalk up to nothing, or to associate with some transcendental thing that we don't even search for physically. Biology and behavior are both intriguing and confusing, and I want to be able to question each of them further.

Skye Harmony's picture


I was discussing the idea of “free will” somewhat recently with a friend who believes that there is no mind vs. brain distinction, and since all of our conscious decisions are actually made by neurons in our brains, we do not truly have free will. I agree that the mind is not a separate entity, but I argued that this means I do have free will, since my brain is what defines me as me, thus any decision that my brain makes is a decision I am making. (I know this is somewhat of a different issue, but thought it relevant.)

The mind and brain are basically the same, but since it is so hard to think about the process of thought, it is easier to separate them slightly when conceptualizing. I tend to think of the brain as the physical matter and the mind as the conscious, working processes that come out of this matter. Merriam-Webster defines the mind as “the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons; the conscious mental events and capabilities in an organism” ( Scientists have already isolated regions of the brain that are for a large part responsible for processes such as reasoning (that is, reasoning does not all occur in one area of the brain, but we have been able to identify areas that specialize in planning, etc). “Conscious mental events and capabilities” also arise from the brain. So it makes sense that the mind is a function of the brain. I just can’t think of anything other than the brain that can account for what I think of as the mind, or for the differences among individuals.

I completely agree with Allison that the fact that the mind is a biological phenomenon rather than a spiritual one does not belittle the mind or limit its power. On the contrary, I find it even more impressive that every human being is given such a powerful genetic gift and yet everyone’s is slightly different. It is an amazing and somehow comforting thought that we are just “clumps of matter” intricately wired to produce an infinite range of behaviors.

eambash's picture

With each term always changing, does the equal sign change too?

For me, the main question is not "Is there a separation between brain and behavior?" but rather "How do the brain and behavior interrelate?" While I recognize that many people enjoy the idea of an elusive mind (or soul or spirit), I'm not drawn to that idea. Moreover, I don't find it threatening to think that there is a biological basis for our behavior -- including interior, unseen activity, like thinking. The idea that we can observe and describe things biologically is appealing to me, not scary. Scientific observation doesn't take anything away from our higher-level functions; it doesn't place them into a tiny box or try to define them too clearly. As we talked about in class, describing things scientifically does not mean unlocking all their mysteries or granting scientists some all-knowing Truth.

I'm bothered more by Descartes' idea than by Dickinson's because it seems, to me, to accept too readily that there are things we can't even discuss or observe. I don't want to give our humanity any special value. Why can't we talk about it and examine it the same way we do other organisms? Yes, we are highly evolved creatures, but that doesn't mean we should take consciousness, decision-making, and other pre-frontal-lobe activities and place them in an "Untouchable" or "Unknowable" box.

At the same time, however, I do think it's important to remember to separate scientific discovery from assumptions and from truth. Saying that the mind might be a function of the brain says nothing about how complicated a process making the idea of oneself is or how much each of us differs in that and other processes. I'm intrigued by Emily Dickinson's formulation of the relationship between the brain and the sky -- between an individual and the world -- but do still want to probe deeper. I'm not satisfied just by saying, "Okay, the brain creates the mind and the sky. Throw everything inside and lock it up." I still want to explore it. Even if it's all a construction of the mind (at least in the terms set up by Constructivism, which complicate things more than Dickinson does), I still want to know how it works.

If we are living, moving, growing beings, so are our brains. Our conceptions of ourselves and our worlds are vastly different when we're infants from what they are today, just as our behavior changes. How do the ingrained growth processes that we all grow through, AS WELL AS the more flexible ways in which we're changed, built, or affected as individuals, play into this discussion?

If the brain=behavior but both brain and behavior are constantly changing, what does the equal sign even mean? What kind of correlation do these two ideas have to one another?

Zoe Fuller-Young's picture

Some great ideas...

I agree with many aspects of this post. It does not scary to be without a "mind" in that it is our brains that are conducting our thinking and our behavior, it fascinates me. As mentioned in class, there have been scans done of the brain showing activity during thought processes, and I have also heard of activity while someone is working through questions of morality. The brain is constantly changing but also has lasting patterns- it seems that in class we were interpreting the brain as the conductor in a stimuli-response situation, and the mind as the input-output coordinator. I wonder, to those who are attracted to dualism, what do you see as the mind? Is it a function of the brain but separate, is it something higher than us? If the mind is separate from the brain, why do we have such large brains? I think that it is morality and agency that add to the sheer mass of our brains.

 Some questions class made me think about are why do humans so often search for their self? by this I mean the quest for the self, the journey to discover who one truly is? Also, when thinking about the mind/brain, does anyone know about comparisons to other animals? do other primates practice moral judgement, and if so, does that mean that they have what you determine to be a mind?

Mahvish Qureshi's picture

Brain and Behavior

The relationship between the brain and behaviour is a unique relationship that remains a mystery. A person's behaviour is a result of the activity of the brain, but I think that the brains activity is not just based on the network of neurons and the nervous system, it is based on a persons perceptions, and external environment as well. A person's point of views etc. are not necessarilly components of the brain but more so are components of a person's mind.

Descartes says that 'much of observable behaviour is a result of the nervous and a result of the mind.' As disconcerting as it is I think that the mind does construe alot of what we percieve which affects the way our brain cuases us to behave. I have a greater tendancy to agree with descartes point of view on the brain and mind then with Crick who just believes that our behaviour and personality is simply the result of the nervous system. There is no denying that the nervous system and neurons play a large part in commanding the way we act/behave, but the attitude to behave in such a manner is derived from our mind which is filled with our perceptions, and opinions all based on our upbrining and other external stimuli.

From Emily Dickinson's poem I find it interesting how it is said the sky can fit into the brain. The brain can contain the sky because it can comprehend the concept of the sky. The sky may be more vast/bigger than the brain but it is much more simplistic and can not be compared to something as comple as the brain.


Allison's picture

Mind and brain

As I have been reading these forum posts, I have been trying very hard to move past my own basic assumptions and look at the question from different angles. I think the question of whether the mind is separate from the brain is an interesting one, and one that while I at first assumed was easily debated has become increasingly more complex. I think I agree with K. Smythe however, in that I do not understand why it matters what exactly the mind is, or why the brain as a functional machine and the mind have to be mutually exclusive. I have always assumed that the brain, in its vast complexity, works to create a range of thoughts and feelings. I think that the functions of the brain work together to create what we think of as our "mind", and to say that it is an organic process rather than some kind of spiritual one does not limit its potential or power, at least not to me. As I believe was mentioned above, everyone is different, and has different viewpoints and mindsets based on both where they come from and who they are to begin with. I believe that who someone is is determined by things such as genetics and experiences, and do not think that it is in any way belittling the mind to say that the brain is similarly molded. I think personally that perhaps the mind is a function of the brain, and the mind could perhaps be thought of as the sum of all parts.

K. Smythe's picture

Mind, brain or some combination

I find myself clearly "on the fence" on the issue of whether behavior is completely determined by the brain/nervous system or whether there is some other, alternative “mind”, “soul” etc. that may contribute.  I find that for me this is particularly difficult in terms of abstract notions such as emotions and creative or original thought.  I can see that motor neurons cause our physical behavior but what causes our internal state to be translated into a particular motion.  Is it the sum of our experiences which interprets our environment and then accordingly physically reacts?  The range of each individual’s experiences is so vast that this I suppose is entirely possible.  Added to this is the fact that how we process/experience an experience may also differ based on prior experiences or our actual physical differences from others.  Due to the abstract nature of emotions etc. this is a very hard point to even support without even touching on what is “true” (if that exists…).  Our understanding of the brain and how it functions is really quite elementary and I am still waiting on more evidence to make any sort of even remotely conclusive decision on this point.  However, I’m not sure that I am overly concerned about this.  Whether or not I transcend my physicality is almost irrelevant to me at this point, as that belief does not affect my personal experience of emotions etc.  Someone something along this line in class, and I found it to express my own thoughts: that the validity and experience of emotions etc. is not necessarily hindered by their source or knowledge thereof.  My experience with science thus far leads me to believe that as with most dichotomies it is probably some intertwined combination of multiple factors.

llamprou's picture

Hallucinations and Cognitive Function

Jean made a very interesting point that got me thinking about the hallucinations provoked by drugs, other substances and mental “disorders” such as schizophrenia. In class we discussed how Dickinson wrote in her poem that “The brain is wider than the sky…The one the other will include/With ease, and you beside”. I am wondering what class hallucinations fall into? If the outer world that we experience every day is all constructed by our brain, what we touch, who we see, the behavioral cues we interpret from others, then what creates the inner world? Schizophrenia is classified by some to affect cognitive functioning, but if we believe that the brain creates everything then is it not safe to say that schizophrenics are actually not “different”, their brain is just interpreting the world differently from someone else. But for some reason the majority of the population do not see a car crash unless it actually happens, and do not hear voices that aren’t being spoken. After all this rambling what I want to really say is that I do not understand where mental illness falls in neurobiology. It is blatantly clear when one individual is not “behaving normally” but if our brain creates everything catered to each individual then what is normal? Should those with cognitive disorders be dubbed gifted?

Nelly Khaselev's picture

Why do we need a mind?

My first reaction in class was that there absolutely is a mind and a brain that co-exists and governs our behavior and personality because there is os much to a person and his/her personality that i could not even begin to grasp the idea that everything could be simply be a code of chemical/electric reactions in our body. However, when I began to read everyone comments (which were all very interesting) I realized I didn’t not need “the mind” to explain any observable part of human behavior and more some. I, from what I know now, just see that the physiology of the brain although it is not all understood has the potential to explain our emotions, our subconscious, our thoughts, even maybe why we have morals and other complex questions. Hormones, chemicals, and neural messages govern humans. The only question that I ask is whether we feel happy because our sensors received a chemical message, or is that chemical message sent because we are happy? I do not know the “right” answer to this question, if there is such a thing, but I currently think that we feel happy because of something, that causes a signal in the brain that passes through out body. This something can be ice cream, a love story, or even something that is not observable like the our subconscious. You know, when you have those days when you are just in a good mood! I love those days. See you all soon.

 ~Nelly Khaselev's picture

drugs...drugs..and more drugs...

My question is that if the brain and behavior or brain and our spirits are not linked, then why do we get so depressed after using drugs like E and wasting all of our serotonin so that we are deprived of our happy hormones and cannot control how we feel?

Also, doctors are able to tweak our feelings and thoughts by usage of different chemicals that trigger different chemicals and hormones from our own nervous system.  And those who are extremely O.D-ed, start to hallucinate and make up their own images in their heads.  What are those images and are they actually existent or not existent?

But before I ramble again, I wanted to point out that I feel that the brain and human behavior is all controlled by the body's chemical response and that (although some may think that it is depressing) we are an extremely elaborate system that is controlled by hormone levels in response to inner/outer influences.


Madina G.'s picture

Mind and Brain

Initially in class during the discussion on the independence of the brain and mind, I was indecisive of how to link the two entities together---or are they one? In my opinion, they are two entities yet their purpose and function and are dependent upon each other. The brain’s ability to process information chemically is what determines the mind or consciousness of one’s being (i.e. serotonin levels that effect mood, sleep, appetite, etc.) Contrastingly, the brain is certainly affected by consciousness levels as scientists have observed in certain illnesses such as Seasonal Affective Disorder where mood variations are believed to be attributed to the amount of light that an individual is exposed to. Depressed-like symptoms occur when the amount of light exposure is low, and treatments for this kind of disorder include light therapy.

For some it may be easy to simply say that the brain and mind are one for the brains processing is the actual manifestation of consciousness. How can this explain persistent vegetative states where brain activity is still present yet consciousness has reached a minimal low?

This interdependency, or loop between the brain and mind is what makes it the most intriguing and complex organ of the body. No dualistic character can be associated with any other organ of the body, except the brain.

MarieSager's picture

I have to be honest. I have

I have to be honest. I have no idea if brain = behavior. Something that pops into my mind is nature versus nurture. If brain= behavior, then there isn't both nature and nurture affecting one's behavior- there is only nature. So I guess I don't think that brain = behavior. But then, maybe both nature and nurture are internalized through the brain, and then become behavior.... I'm really not sure.
Mahvish Qureshi's picture

But can nurture affect the

But can nurture affect the nature of the brain and the way it chooses to make someone react/behave in certain situations?
Zoe Fuller-Young's picture

Very Loopy Indeed

Well if this science class isn't loopy then I don't know what is. Also, writing the night before class is a terrible idea because so many people have written it is hard to read all their thoughts and process everything. I voted "on the fence" in class mostly because of this same issue, there were so many thoughts going around and little time to process. Now that I have had some time, I am also an Emily Dickinson follower. We have been talking about the brain and the mind as if the brain is limited because it is a "hunk of mass," but I find that regardless of what the brain looks like, its capabilities are enormous. As someone mentioned above, the placebo effect is an excellent example of the way in which the brain can cause the rest of the body to react physically in a certain way that is perhaps not "actually" occuring- another poke at the theory that science as truth. What I often wonder is to what extent does medicine help certain ailments more efficiently than positive thinking, or changing negative cognitive thinking patterns? There are, most definately, mental diseases and pain that cannot be fixed by "being positive," but I think that we often underestimate the power of the brain to convince our physical body what is happening to it.

A note to Anna's comment about a "workable truth," I agree that it was difficult to swallow the idea that the only field that really works to test and retest and prove and conclude, is not only truth-less but infact incapable of finding truth. One way I have begun thinking about what Grobstein said is that there are scientific patterns. These patterns of observations are found and can be refound and in a way, this is a truth pattern. But in the end, perhaps this pattern will change and we will find a new pattern that changes the way we interpret truth. The word truth to begin with is problematic in a way, because it is always spoken of as if it is something we MUST find, and people are always in search of this illusive truth. But inevitably, as Anna said, everyone is bias in their own way and so everyone's truth will be different. The strange thing is when different people in different places find the same results, the same truth... but does this make it true truth? I was about to delete that last line but it's so ridiculous I will keep it.. See you all tomorrow!

Lyndsey C's picture

Delayed Reaction!

I was looking over my notes and I have a quick response to our first class' discussion about the newspaper headline "Anti-Depressant Studies Unpublished." I was especially interested in this topic because a lack of sufficient data is something we have often come across in a lot of my psychology courses regarding disorders and research, but we haven't really had the opportunity to debate the reprecussions of witheld information. I find it a little disconcerting that in the past few decades, the prescription of drugs appears to far surpass traditional cognitive behavioral therapy, and I am starting to realize that this may be due to the fact that the truth about anti-depressants has yet to be found, especially when researchers hesitate to publish negative test results which might conflict with past research that is more widely accepted. I think people want to believe that drugs will take care of anything and everything, and anything that disputes that is simply discarded. Doesn't this defeat the whole purpose of science, which we have discussed to be ever-changing and progressing? Perhaps if more negative test results of antidepressant medications were demonstrated and publicized, there would be less of an over-prescription of medicine, in particular for those who do not neccessarily need it for treatment.
jwong's picture

circular thoughts.

I read once that the significance of naming an illness was that it rendered it intelligible to the sufferer. One could infer that putting a name to an idea, putting a solid and tangible definition on what exactly the brain is versus behavior—whether they are or are not of the same meaning—will inexorably position it to a point where it cannot truly be believed anymore. This infinite series of connections is represented in historical/classical Chinese thought, where life itself exists in a circular pattern. In this mode of thought, perhaps it is that there is no progress in science, but rather deeper or more defined connections and understandings of things that already exist. Thus, maybe the brain IS behavior, but that they face each other on opposite sides of a circle of thought…

One of the hardest things to deal with as a scientist is to decide whether or not science can be the end all explanation behind things that happen. Is it necessary to define life and human interaction as being products of scientific process? Though the brain itself is a muscle, a natural living object, it seems unnatural or even inhuman to canonize it and hold it equal to the mind and to behavior. If that was the case, I feel as thought every life and every person would hold towards the same goals and the same desires, without possessing any noticeable sense of individuality. Yet we are all different, no matter how we try to group ourselves.

Ramachandran said that the richness of our mental life is “simply the activity of these little specks of jelly in your head, in your brain. There is nothing else.” To believe that brain stimulations and synapses follow innate patterns to produce simulated reactions to stimuli, that feelings of joy, the freedom of laughter and excitement, or the thrills of love are all constructed emotions; these are all hollow realizations, ones that I do not feel can thoroughly be defined by such tidy rationale. I think the magic of life is that life and behavior in themselves deal with more than just a science of technical connections and reactions going on inside of our bodies. Feelings of love and compassion and being able to house our own worlds inside our minds and create individualized connections with others around us is something that shows a deviation between the biological workings of the brain and the creative, individual stimulus of our own minds (in our brain). I’m not sure if I just refuted my own statement there, or whether or not the brain and behavior being equal can even truly be explained. Or if it needs to be.

cheffernan's picture


Thinking about Thursday's class, the discussion about the brain and how it perceives the outside world was a rather existentialist, as well as little mind blowing at the time. The conclusion made in class was basically that each individual brain interacted with the world on its own, which means therefore that each individual has its own construct of what the world is. Just thinking about this idea in terms plausibility, it seems impossible. With as many differences as each individual possess, it’s hard to imagine that with every person having individual set of experiences and observations that there is a common description capable of including and meeting everyone's version of specific objects or places, let alone whole world.

 But it is this idea that makes neuroscience so interesting: even with individual differences, it seems as though every person's brain processes sensory information using the same methods, leading to similar results. Since there is no way of knowing the answer to this question, it makes the field all the more interesting and exciting that can lead to many theories attempting to describe how the brain and the environment interact. Whether Emily Dickinson was right that the sky is only a manifestation of the brain and the mind or Descartes was right in his belief that the brain and the mind are distinct entities, the decision may never be known, which will allow the allure of the subject to grow making the field an interesting one to watch.

gflaherty's picture

thursday's class

            I have to disagree with part of Thursday’s class discussion and the overall analysis of Emily Dickinson’s poem.  I don’t like to think that Dickinson was saying that the brain constructs the world we live in.  This sort of assumption about her poem does not make any sense to me.  If the brain were responsible for constructing everything in the world, how then would we account for objects that most people perceive in the same manner?  I understand that there is certain amount of individual perception in everything we view; yet to say that the brain constructs everything seems to be a stretch.  In class discussion one person brought up the notion that Dickinson might have been trying to convey the message that the brain is able to conceive of everything ‘with ease’. I find this to be a much more accurate way to analyze Dickinson’swork. 

            As for determining whether I subscribe to Descartes’ mind/body dualism or Dickinson’s perceptions of the brain, I cannot say.  I do believe that behavior is the presentation of both the body and the emotions of the self. I don’t think that the mind and body are separate entities to the degree that Descartes claimed.  Yet, I am not convinced solely by Dickinson’s poem either.

Jessica Krueger's picture

See... I didn't take the

See... I didn't take the conclusion of the discussion to be that the brain constructs the world we live in, but rather the experience of how we live in the world. Like looking through a window, our perception is mediated by this mass of tissue and will invariably lead to distortions and limitations because it is not capable of producing (or really even perceiving absolute truths).

If the brain were responsible for constructing everything in the world, how then would we account for objects that most people perceive in the same manner?

I don't mean to be condescending, or jumping the gun in course material, but the "fact" of reality is that though for the most part a verbal community largely agrees with many shared perceptions of objects and events, there is also a great deal of disagreement and error in our perception (or should I say construction?) of reality.

I also agree with you that it may be better to think of the "sky" as something the brain does, i.e. the way the brain breaks down the perception of the collection of molecules pushing constantly on our heads from above.

maggie_simon's picture

Brain creates all? Brain is limited by our bodies?

I thought about the brain's role in constructing what we experience in two ways:

1)  The brain has constructed everything, including the illusion that there are other people with brains (it is a pretty egocentric idea: I am basically saying that everything that I think and experience is created in my brain and there is actually nothing else out there, I have even created the reality that there are other people and other things beyond me in my brain) and so people come to similar conclusions because my brain has created a reality in which that is so.  2)  People come to similar conclusions because they all live in the same world and that world is perceived through a body which is limited in its ability to perceive and experience its surroundings.  The brain can only process those experiences that the body can perceive, and since human bodies are limited in the same way, it makes sense that they would come to similar conclusions about their surroundings.  It is interesting to think about how an organism in a body that experiences the external world differently might perceive its world, for example an organism without eyes or an organism that can perceive UV light.  The world around us is very much colored by the mechanism we use to perceive it and there is quite possibly (I think definitely) more out there that we don’t even know exists because we can’t perceive it.  I mean if you look at theories in physics they often describe phenomena that we did not perceive directly, such as black holes or quarks, but which we eventually discovered simply because what we could perceive was behaving differently than how we expected it to, based on our experience of perception in other similar situations.  I guess this is an example as to how negative or unexpected results in an experiment give way to new thoughts and explorations.

Jessica Krueger's picture


Given that this forum was meant to meander, I'm going to take the initiative and discuss one of my oh so favorite topics: loopy-science. When Nietzsche asserted that "God is dead!" what he really meant was that we, humans, created the all-powerful entity to whom so many are willing to ascribe their own greatness. So too have we lowly monkey created the unwieldy giant that is science, a concept as subject to foibles and folly as any other of man’s making. Two specifics topics come to mind when I consider the human origins of science; the limits of language and the necessity of self-reflection for the scientist.

Too often science has been thought of delivering a truth tantamount to that of a religion. A veritable war of words rages on the internet between fundamentalists of either religious and scientific persuasion, and unfortunately but for the words “Darwin” or “Jesus,” the structure of the arguments are largely identical. Science and religion (for now I’ll focus on the religion I’m more familiar with, Catholicism) share other similarities; both make use of the Latin language in an obfuscatory manner, both come with socially legible vestments that demarcate the wearer as a practitioner, and both are thought to revolve around glass receptacles filled with mystical liquid. While many followers of “Science” fail to conduct themselves in manner which distinguishes their beliefs from religious faith, science itself calls for the scientist to consider himself and his role within science as a body. The scientist should be aware that he is first and foremost a human, not the objective all seeing eye that the public often regards him as. The scientist needs to consider her position not only within her phylogenetic history, but her ontogenetic history as well. Education, family structure, citizenship; all these social structures will augment the practice of science within the lab.

Language is a particular favorite limit of mine. I’ve always tended more towards a Whorf-ian conception of language, which asserts that language comes after perception of reality and thus comes to drive our understanding of the “physical” reality around us. If language really does control how the world is perceived by the brain, then certain “truths” or physical laws may be limited to the language within which they were invented. Consider a hypothetical language which has no means to express time (Whorf asserts that Hopi is one such language, but this assertion remains controversial[1]). If one cannot express time, then among many other issues, one cannot express velocity. While this would make physics much easier for speakers of English, what does this do to the reality of the speaker of our hypothetical language? More to the point, what does it do to their science?

1. Whorf, Benjamin, “Science and Linguistics,” in Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ED. Carrol, J.B., MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass., 1956.

Rica Dela Cruz's picture

Brain AND mind= behavior

After reading a few of thecomments above, I am having a difficult time choosing what to believe. I do not think that there should be a distinction between whether behavior exists due tothe brain or if behavior exists due to the mind. Scientific research has shown that our actions and motions (our behavior) is a result of an electrical current moving through axons and neurons, whichare signaled from the brain. Therefore, I do believe that the brain does equalbehavior, but I also believe that the mind equals behavior. I believe that physical behavior (the actions we carry out) is a result from our brain; however, it is why or how we behave that is a result from our mind. For me, the brain and the mind are related to one another. I feel that a human being cannot be a person without having both a brain and a mind.

I guess you can say then that I am siding with Descartes because I am making a distinction between the brain and the mind and I believe one needs both in order to exist as an individual person. For instance, take identical twins. Both have the same genetic makeup, but most of the time they are very different from each other. How? I feel thisis a consequence of possessing a mind and a soul. Also, everyone has very similar brain structures. I see the brain as an organ, an object, which helps us express what our minds are feeling and want "us" to do. If our brains are all the same and a mind does not exist, why are we all so different then? One might argue because we have different experiences, backgrounds, andcultures, which are absorbed by our brain (as Emily Dickenson describes); however, there are people that do have the same experiences or have the same backgrounds and/or cultures who still are very different from one another. How is this possible? I believe this is because of the existence of the mind. This is how we are so unique. The brain, however, is still important because they help people express their minds. 

Kendra's picture

What struck me the most

What struck me the most about Thursday's class has to be the different trains of thought when talking about the brain/mind dualism. I believe it was so interesting to me behind of my overall lack of knowledge of neurobiology and its connection to behavior. Though I found the trains of thought of Descartes, Dickinson, Crick, Ramachandran and even Grobstein interesting, I voted for the Dickinson et al mindset that its all brain/neurons/matter but thinking back,  I am unsure/on the fence. I made this switch because I found it kind of disconcerting to think in Dickinson's terms that everything we see is only constructions of the brain and nothing more but I also agree with Crick that there may not be a mind in addition to the brain. 

I hope that throughout this course I am able to make the distinction between the mind and the brain (if there even is one). 

merry2e's picture

My belief is...

Without the brain…there would not be a mind. Brain and mind are intertwined together, but when one dies, the other dies with it. The mind is a perception of our brains.

Without the brain there would not be behavior.

Without the brain there would not be a body to remember. (sensations, olfactory, etc)

The spirit is a whole different story. I believe my spirit will live on in the hearts (body, as the body remembers), brain/mind,  of those who I have loved and touched throughout my life.

I could be totally wrong. Or I could be totally right.  Will we ever know?

"I said in Dorian Gray that the great sins of the world take place in the brain: but it is in the brain that everything takes place.... It is in the brain that the poppy is red, that the apple is odorous, that the skylark sings." ~Oscar Wilde

Jessica Varney's picture

Brain is behavior, and economics is judgment

In reading through the posts that others have already submitted, I’m most intrigued by Anna’s. Anna brings up the point that we tend to forget to apply the theory of evolution to humans and the human minds, and reminds us that, if you believe in evolution, then the intricate faculties of the human mind arose because of reproductive pressures.

I was certain that I was in the “brain=behavior” camp, and this argument is the one that I couldn’t find when I was first trying to state my opinion. Evolution is the mechanism by which I am comfortable saying that I don’t believe that there is a mind or a soul that determines free will and makes moral judgments. I think that every “moral” a person holds can be explained rationally, often making use of evolution, game theory, or economics. I am now reminded of a book review I saw in the New York Times on Friday for The Logic of Life by Tim Hartford. The reviewer says of Hartford, “The premise is simple. Human beings are rational creatures who respond to incentives and rewards. No matter how bizarre a choice might seem, there is logic at work […]” I think that there are many subconscious motivations that we too readily attribute to the mind, the soul's direction, fate, divine intervention.

Finally, like Caitlin, I still think that the faculties of the human mind are amazing and inspiring. Just because I don’t believe in a soul doesn’t mean that life and natural is doomed to be depressing, clinical, and devoid of mystery or beauty. (:

Tara Raju's picture

Yeaaaa Descartes

The notion that behavior is made up of just the brain is to the say the least, slightly disconcerting. Sophie best translated this into saying that the brain is “like an automation” where “we are all a mere collection of wires, impulses and programmed responses”.  I think that behavior is influenced by a number of different things and just not the brain so I am siding with Descartes on this one. The things that we say or do are not always entirely influenced by just the brain or else we probably wouldn’t do half the things that we do. The brain knows the consequences of all our actions so simple behavioral choices are made simply because we want to do them, because it feels good, makes us feel loved, feel wanted. The  brain if it had its way all the time would most likely make sure that as individuals that we lived more sheltered lives.  Our behavior has got to be influenced by one of more things, and the mind is just one of them.  The behavior of all organisms, humans and a like, is so complex and so intricate that to simply define all behavior as direct activities of the brain would be inaccurate.  
PS2007's picture

Wider Than the Sky?

Maybe this class will convince me otherwise, but as of now I am firmly of the belief that there is no such thing as the "human spirit". I know that some people feel that Crick's theory makes human beings seem like machines, but I don't feel this way. Obviously we have a long way to go before we understand everything about the brain, or it's abilities. In contrast, there are some people who can understand and create the most complex machines available today. If the brain is like a machine, it is the most incredibly complex machine in existence. I think it is a more apt description to say that machines are extremely simplified versions of the brain.

I think it will be interesting to see everyones response to this same idea after we have finished the course. I wonder how more knowledge about neurobiology will effect my opinion on this subject.

Emily Alspector's picture

getting it more right

I think what struck me most about last Thursdays class was the notion that a failed experiment is "worth more" to science as a discipline that a successful one because of the fact that we don't know for sure that running the experiment again will lead to success every time. But if we are using the "you never know" logic, can't the same be said for failed experiments? There are so many things involved with unsuccessful experiments, and there is a lot to learn from them, of course, but many things can be overlooked in trying to explain the failure, which can then lead to miscalculations and misconstrued theories. I guess my point is that I don't really think we should hope for failures in order to further science because both sucessful and unsucessful experiments seem to be potentially useful but also potentially defective. As much as I like the idea of commending being wrong, I don't think we should value it over being right. Just because we may never find "truth", we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that our goal is to get as close as possible, and, in order to do that, need to get some things right.
mkhilji's picture

something random

While researching the brain it was interesting to come across that the Ancient Egyptians during mummification practices for the dead would value the heart assumed as the intelligence seat rather than the brain. Where the brain was considered cranial stuffing..this seems to remain as a belief by many, for example by the saying that we still use today when someone commits something to memory that they “memorized it by heart” rather than by brain...., also feelings such as love and hatred are affiliated with ones heart so in a weird way it is somewhat understandable to see why the Egyptians may have believed that ones conscience was based on their heart. It would be interesting to research the origins of the heart and how it became adopted in commercial world as the symbol of love.

mkhilji's picture

Brain vs. Soul

In class on Thursday I was one of the people who belonged to “on the fence” on this discussion regarding whether the brain is equal to behavior. Looking over my classmates responses on this discussion I rephrased the question for myself as: Is the brain=soul, or are they separate? This question arose as I was reading over Crick’s definition of behavior as including our emotions, memories, ambitions, and identity. I am torn about believing that all of this is essentially a result of an “assembly of nerve cell and their associated molecules”. I feel if this were true, then why are we all so different—especially those of us who are fortunate to have healthy brains—meaning functional and not affected by any disease. If all of our brains are made up of the same molecules and nerve cell systems, then how come we tend to have different cognitive abilities. For example how is it that some people are good at learning new languages, or how some people tend to understand concepts of math and science quicker than other people. I do believe that our experiences and environments do have an impact on the capabilities of our separate brains—but doesn’t this mean that we all start from the same level? If this is true that no one is born with a mental advantage over another—that what implications may this have on social issues such as affirmative action in our education system?

The other issue that I pointed out about soul was that to scientists tend to equate the word soul with mind. Crick is one of these scientists and he holds the position that everything knowable about the human soul can be discovered by studying the human brain. Perhaps this is what Emily Dickinson may have meant that the brain is wider than the sky and that the sky could fit into the brain—maybe she is speaking to the fact that our mind is infinite and that much can be found within it.

The soul has many philosophical and religious connotations. The soul is thought to incorporate the inner essence of each living being, some religions believe that souls are considered to be immortal and has a link with notions of an afterlife. Being a Muslim I been raised to believe that at death, “ the person's soul transitions to an eternal afterlife of bliss, peace and unending spiritual growth until the day of judgement where both the body and soul are re-united for judgement at which point the person is either rewarded by going to heaven if he has followed God's commands or punished if he has disobeyed Him (Qur’an 66:8, 39:20).” Generally I believed that everyone is comprised of two aspects: the physical (being the body) and the non-physical (being the soul). The soul is one’s soul-related activities like his/her feelings and emotions, thoughts, conscious and sub-conscious desires.

On the other hand, scientifically the explanation of the brain is that our behavior is just the reaction as the brain receive signals through nerves arriving from the sensors, these sensors are then processed resulting in appropriate reactions. The brain acts instinctually, such as recognizing danger, the instinct of finding foot, indentifying or forming attraction for potential maters and other functions. Also the fact that the brain has muscle control makes me believe the science of the brain and understand the structure of how messages are sent to the muscles to react in certain ways. This also pertains to the hormones that are produced by the brain that assist in influencing organs elsewhere in the body.

This scientific evidence also makes me believe that our consciousness is derived from the brain, especially since many brain diseases show symptoms that have an impact on an individual’s personality, and cognitive processing. For example mental illnesses such as clinical depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are brain diseases that impact personality and other mental functions.

mcrepeau's picture

Rantings on topics of mind and brain

I guess that my position on the nature of the brain/mind paradigm can be best explained as similar to the position that I hold on the existence of ghosts and psychic phenomenon. I am a person, who you might have guessed, is intrigued by the paranormal and supernatural elements of life and who finds that the existence of an "other" experience of reality, time, etc. somehow necessary for my existence i.e. I want to believe/believe in this phenomenon. However, I am also the first person in a group to tear apart a so called encounter of the paranormal, hack it up into logical parts of possible elements that could explain such phenomenon as occurrences very much grounded in the generally perceived vision of reality i.e. natural magnetic fields, and dust motes caught in the light are just as at the cause of a so called ghostly encounter as any actual entity of the paranormal. In the same venue, I find the mechanical, neurological explanations that seem to explain things such as ghostly encounters, past life experiences, out-of body experiences just as intriguing and necessary as the phenomena themselves. Yet, the "genuine" paranormal can still exist for just as viably in my understanding of existence as the studies that demonstrate intentionally induced experiences of the kind through the manipulation of brain chemistry and physical stimulus of certain brain regions related to specific senses, etc. There is something intriguing and acceptable in the notion that we are no more and no less than ingenious vehicles of nature, organic machines, that life is without any profound agency on a cosmic scale. There is a type of comfort that can come from a void, with a lack of agency or meaning, there is in turn a certain lack of responsibility, a kind of freedom in a nothingness. Yet, the void that undermines our agency and divests us of purpose is disturbing as well, if only in that we find it disturbing and experience a deep seeded need to perceive a mind or a soul. Even when we can agree that our behaviors and all the complex variables that differentiate us are the sum of all the little electrical charges in all of us, we still cannot disregard the result of that sum and thresh it of its impact on our lives, i.e. even if we can explain love chemically, can break it down into a biological process, when comes to our own experience we cannot negate its existence or its effect on us and what it means. Perhaps this cognitive dissonance between the logic that we can digest and accept, and which tells us we are an organic machine, yet still somehow ignore is another emergent property of our existence, that we must believe in the authenticity of ourselves (as a soul as a mind) on some level, despite observations that bring us to other validations of reality, seems to be a very unique coping method, else existence would be to hard to maintain. Yet, why even develop in such a way that demands a mechanism to maintain our drive to live. We can understand death in a logical sense, but its experience, what it is, escapes us. We can know that all things "end" yet our own ends are inconceivable. We can understand on a logical level that we are just biological matter, yet how to just be biological matter is impossible and even repulsive for many of us. For, we must live, and thus must cope with life even against our own understanding of it, and yet other organisms are alive with seemingly less need for such a mechanism.

Sophie F's picture

Brain and behavior

I have really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments!
The idea that brain=behavior is simultaneously alluring and unsettling. For, the notion that, like an automaton, we are all a mere collection of wires, impulses and programmed responses undermines the notion of free will. Or does it? The following website geared towards children compares the brain to a computer Is a computer capable of rational thought and of feeling? This New York Times article, upon which I stumbled a few weeks ago, discusses the advances in computerized chess programs, such that the computer is sometimes able to defeat world champion chess players. The issue the article raises, though, is the computer program only as capable at chess as the best programmer? “Teaching” a computer to respond in programmed ways cannot be the same as the human experience, which is ever-nuanced and intimately knowable by the individual alone. There is comfort in permitting the idea to germinate that there exists “reason” behind behavior and that the excitement of love and the agony of defeat can be deeply personal experiences as well as mediated by the brain; the two need not be mutually exclusive. Choice, belief, perception, interconnectedness and the like are not undermined by the symbiotic mind/body relationship from which behavior is borne.

Emily Dickinson’s poem rather than purporting a solipsistic vision of the world is an exquisitely expansive one. We do not exist in isolation a mere collection of perceptions, as the philosophy of solipsism would have it ( Indeed, to suggest that the brain has limitless capacity, as Dickinson does, and moreover is the genesis of sky, ocean… is to probe the very nature of existence. It seems the essence of the Dickinson argument is that the mind and body are inextricably linked. Our thoughts and feelings are shaped by our perceptions, all of which are rooted in the brain. On the surface, Dickinson’s must have been a radical notion since the brain, while a popular topic, was something about which much was speculated, but a comprehensive summary of observations was evolving. There was a shift from the brain as the realm of the philosopher, Darwinian evolution and the cleric to that of the scientist (and the poet).

It is only very recently that some of the mysteries of the brain have been unraveled, with a plethora of research supporting the involvement of particular regions of the brain in feelings, decision-making and other behaviors. Techniques, such as fMRI ( have elucidated particular regions of the brain and their functions. These observations do not unto themselves answer the question of whether the mind lies within the brain, along with the "spirit," but they encapsulate one layer of observations that are quite compelling. Scientists, like Crick have pioneered the underpinnings of genetics as a basis for behavior. And Dickinson’s poetic outpourings suggest the sky resides in the brain, a lovely idea and one, which I believe, has merit. This is compared to Descartes’ assertion that the mind and body were largely distinct entities, reasoning, “I think therefore I am.” This doctrine of thought as evidence for existence fails to account for the complicated, often murky, world of the brain. Yes, I think, but I also feel, weigh decisions, make decisions and observe others’ behavior, amongst other things and therefore I am.

It is disconcerting to depersonalize one’s existence by embracing the power of the brain in molding and executing observable and unobservable behavior. However, acknowledging the brain’s power does not undermine one’s subjective experience or free will, rather the beauty in mind/body synchronicity can be fully realized and our interconnectedness undeniable. None of this is an argument for a particular "truth" above all others, but for a somewhat related collection of truths in support of a unified set of explanations for the brain=behavior theory. There are many lingering questions. What role do genes play in determining behavior? Where does the balance lie in nature versus nurture in terms of behavior? Did Dickinson’s personal experience give her particular insight into the brain? Etc...
Lyndsey C's picture

Mind vs Body : Soul Searching for the Answer

I guess I must be a little confused about the mind-body dualism we so often speak about when discussing neurobiology or the history of pychology. I have always thought of the mind as being a separate entity from the body, though the body includes the brain. Both function together to motivate, drive, and create behavior bidirectionally. Somatic symptomatology can be caused by psychological problems and vice versa. For example, during finals week many of us may experience a cold or other sickness resulting from a lowered immune system, which is caused by elevated stress levels. On the other side of the same coin, genetic predisposition can affect one's likelihood of manifesting a psychological disorder, such as depression. Examples such as these lead me to support Descartes position on mind-body dualism.

I also think the subject of the soul is an interesting and controversial one. I don't believe the soul needs to be thought of in terms of spirituality. Rather, I think the English language lacks an accepted terminology for whatever it is inside us that makes us think and feel in a way that is unique and distinct from any other life form. The "mind" or "soul" or whatever we want to describe "it" as is a dynamic aspect of the self which differs from our genetic biology which is unchanging.

Penn Tong's picture

Descartes' Fan

During last Thursday's discussion, I was one of the people who believed that behavior was made up of 2 major components, the mind and the brain. I don't believe they are one entity because we can talk about one without mentioning the other.

The reason I find it hard to believe that the brain=behavior is because I feel that our behavior is also influenced by our soul. When I mean soul, I am referring to something non-biological and more spiritual. Dreams are caused by random firing of neurons in the brain and if we believe brain=behavior then that also means that moral judgment, and thoughts are all caused by physical factors. I don't understand how these abstract concepts can be explained through physical matter (for example, the ability for someone to decide if stealing is right or wrong can be explained entirely upon a specific order of arranged atoms interacting with one another in the brain). I just feel that there is something else that we can't explain, but I'm not quite sure how to define it.

jrieders's picture

i was also thinking about

i was also thinking about moral judgement, because different cultures have different morals, as some said in class this has to do with experiences and history etc...but it is hard to imagine if we all have about the same starting blocks and rules, how can seemingly fundamental social rules diverge so much?
Paul Bloch's picture

Evidence of the Soul: Altruism

I had more of a leaning towards Crick and Dickinson, but what you said made me think.
I feel that if behavior was completely biologically based (if it was all attributed to the brain), then all behavior would be for a reward. In other words, the brain is a more advance and strategic nervous system that we developed for survival.
Hence, it is confusing to me why we exhibit altruism - it has no purpose in terms of survival. Therefore, I think acts of altruism must be attributed to something else. Perhaps altruism (and moral judgment as Penn said) are behaviors that are constructed by the mind/soul.

mcrepeau's picture

Evolutionary rewards for altruism

Evolution has dictated that we are not only "rewarded" for ensuring our own individual survival and behaving in such a way that would benefit our own individual genetic legacies, but also, the survival and genetic legacies of those within a group, species, etc. There is a net benefit in helping the "survival" of others in biological and evolutionary terms, the more we ensure the safety, or even the quality of the lives of the other members of our biological groups, the more genetic material unique to our species is likely to remain in circulation and is avialable to be passed on. Even at the cost to an indiviudal's particular chances of survival (such as in very severe circumstances such as the famous example that considers the pros and cons in terms of genetic material of saving a sibling or a cousin from drowning versus a stranger) acts of altruism have remained as part of our behavior because they are ultimately beneficial to the survival of our species i.e. in the example of the drowning sibling/cousin/ stranger the worst possible outcome  is that both the victim and rescuer drown and the gene pool is depleted by two individuals; however, the other 2/3rds of possible outcomes are that one of or both of the indviduals invovled surive and remain in the gene pool, capable of continuing the species (i.e. either a benefit by 2 is obtained that otherwise would not have been, or only 1 individual is lost and nothing has changed (neither gained nor lost) from the original situation). Smaller acts of alturism, giving a homeless person a buck, or giving up your seat on the train to an elderly person, are also ways that we  ensure that other members of the species have a better chance of survival, at healthy activity/quality of life in a social group. It is also by doing favors for others at the cost of our time or resources that we establish reciprocal relationships (i'll scratch your back if you scratch mine type of situations), even if we don't directly expect to be rewarded for it. It also just makes group living easier, less friction and stress (and thus, less potentially fatal fights, longer, healtierh lives with more chances for reprodcution, and more chances for offspring to survive to adulthood if they are being raised by mutliple individuals who look out for them on some level, tc.) is present in a group if all members behave in alturistic ways. Of course this is not to say that all acts of kindess are so calculated, and in most cases they are not, but stem from a place that we tend to call "kindness for kindness's sake" "out of the kindness of my heart", etc. However, this unknonw compulsion just tends to suggest that this alturistic impluse comes from some hard-wired biological trait that has presisted over the eons of our evolution. It has persisted to the point where it appears without conscious reason because it is indeed extremely beneficial to both out indiviual survival and the survival of our species.
Anna G.'s picture

purpose of altruism

Just because behavior is based from the brain, doesn't mean that all output from the brain is the result of a simple reward system. It seems to me that you are confusing the evolutionary reasoning for a brain to exist with the purpose it serves for us now, two very different things. There was evolutionary pressure on the brain to grow larger, which gave the brain the capacity it has now for thought and behavior. However, as humans with reasoning capabilities which grew out of this enlarged brain (for whatever reason, there are a few theories) we are able to make moral decisions that go against what biologically may seem reasonable or the most rewarding.


As human beings, we have the ability to make decisions that may not be in the best interest of evolution, we can thwart it. Like an animal-lover who may risk his life for a cat about to be run over, evolutionarily this has no reason to exist. However, it exists out of existing altruistic mechanisms in the brain as well as our ability to act above the cruel wishes of evolution; for if we could not thwart evolution, we wouldn't use condoms, but rather would have sex with the purpose of creating birth every time, because wouldn't that best increase our biological fitness?


            That being said, there is a biological reason for altruism to exist. Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of the selfish gene in the 70’s, and his theory is now thought to be the best way to look at evolution. His view was that evolution didn’t work at the level of the organism itself, but rather at the level of genes. We are simply replicators that house genes, and through the process of natural selection, gene pools are changed based on which replicators were able to reproduce more. This idea may seem outrageous, providing an unnecessarily bleak outlook on life and indeed our own purpose, however it accounts for altruism and other behaviors that are otherwise mysteries. According to this theory, organisms that developed altruistic behavior were likely to act that way towards relatives (kin selection), which therefore increased the likelihood that these organisms with shared genes, would prosper. So in fact, this altruistic behavior is not actually altruistic, but selfish from the viewpoint of the genes, since they are in actuality helping themselves move on to the next generation. Now of course, none of this is “planned” or can be “foreseen” by the genes, but works on the principle that the genes that caused their replicators to act this way became more and more prevalent, so this behavior was selected for. This works even in organisms that do not have the ability to think and process as we do, such as bees. This is just the simplest case, and there are many more reasons for it outlined by Richard Dawkins in his book the Selfish Gene, but from this we can see that there is a legitimate mechanism for altruism to exist.


In humans, this whole thing becomes more complicated, and game theory is often used to examine the effects of complicated minds living together. In fact, one of the reasons that has been suggested for why human beings have such a wide range of facial movements and eye recognition of these movements is to detect and recognize people with whom in relationships have been formed in the past, and to remember if they have cooperated in reciprocation or if they have defected.  


There are evolutionary and mechanical reasons for altruism to exist. However, humans take morality to the next level, so to speak, and can give without expecting in return. To me, this doesn’t seem like it needs a special explanation however, but can be explained by evolutionary reasoning that exists.


Angel Desai's picture

Self versus self

As discussed in class on Thursday, I felt that the choice Dickinson makes with the capitalized "You" is reminiscent of the distinction the Vedic texts make between the self and the Self. While the self is the temporary, material body, the Self represents the source of individual souls or the eternal element of each individual. Poets choose their words and punctuation with intense care, so the utilization of the capitalized "You" makes me believe that perhaps the mind and the brain are seperate entities.

There is also an internal bias because supporting Descartes represents a more romantic and wistful belief as opposed to understanding the mind to be the product of neurons and electrical impulses. There is also the question of what the term "the mind" really means-does it refer to what is popularly known as the soul? If not, then the Vedic principles discussed in the previous paragraph suggest that the mind and the brain are actually the same thing and that both are temporary, material elements.

Paul Bloch's picture

Mind and Brain

Whenever a surgeon cuts open a head, s/he sees a brain but no mind. Is the mind is invisible? Does one need to see the mind for it two exist as a separate entity other than just a construction of the brain? I'm not able to answer these questions, but I do want to emphasize that I've never heard of anyone observing a physical mind (but maybe that doesn’t matter).

Like Caitlin Jeschke, I also subscribe to the 'hard science' school of thought. In class, I agreed with Dickinson and Crick in that the brain is the basis of all behavior. This is easily seen in the example with the boy and his hand over a flame. It is easy to explain that the overheated cells in the hand sent an electric signal to the brain which then sent a signal to the hand to move. However, it is very difficult to explain the concept of the mind in the same way. Nevertheless, Kedia et al. provided interesting observations that linked emotion with the brain. Using fMRI technique, they observed a change in brain activity in the prefrontal cortex after the subject was emotionally stimulated.

Does this observed correlation between brain activity and emotion support the notion that mind is a construction of the brain? I think it does, but I admit that the answer is debatable. What do you think?

Caitlin Jeschke's picture

The Mind as an Emergent Property

Like Crick and Emily Dickinson, I have always held the belief that the brain and other components of the nervous system were completely responsible for all aspects of behavior.  However, I also agree with Caroline’s comments about what we call “consciousness.”  Reacting to stimuli in a purely physical way is one thing, but being fully aware of what is happening around us, and having opinions, etc…is another. 

            Never having believed in the concept of a “soul”, and being disinclined to see the “mind” as a separate entity, but nevertheless feeling that an individual’s unique thoughts and opinions were important and did not deserve to be reduced to chemical interactions, I have had trouble articulating exactly how I feel about consciousness and behavior.  After much consideration, I think that my views can be summed up most accurately in the idea that the “mind” or “consciousness” is an emergent property of the nervous system (an emergent property, as I understand it, being a property of a system that is unlike/unable to be explained by properties of the individual components of the system).  That, somehow, all of the nerve impulses, and received signals, and physical and chemical responses can combine to produce a thought in the individual, which then becomes a part of that individual’s knowledge.  Since all individuals other than identical twins have some genetic differences, and since no two individuals can have the exact same set of experiences (or, to look at it physically, be exposed to the exact same set of stimuli, in the exact same order) every day, all people could then be expected to have unique collections of thoughts, opinions, and reactions/behavior to different situations. 

            So, though I see consciousness as property of the brain, and hence agree with the statement “brain=behavior”, I still find the experience to be amazing, and think that the thoughts and ideas of others are no less valuable than they would be were they generated by some separate entity.

Anna G.'s picture

To me, the idea to question

To me, the idea to question in the discussion we had in class is not whether or not there is a disembodied “mind” floating around in the brain, responsible for our consciousness and free will. By accepting the theory of evolution, I have accepted the fact that we, and our brain included, are products of this mechanism, and therefore and no more, or less, than physical machines built for the reproductive benefit to our genes.

It is contradictory to claim to believe in the theory of evolution, while not applying it to humans and what our brains. Because our brains give us our reality, they fool us into NOT thinking about them, and simply using them. Natural selection didn’t favor larger, conscious, language-able brains so that we could delve into the mysteries of why we are here, but rather because of an environmental pressure that our ancestors back in the savannah dealt with. By banding together, using language, and enlarging their brain mass, these ancestors were able to survive better.

So unless we claim to have a different ancestry than evolution describes, I don’t see how a nebulous mind could exist (or even, using the principle of parsimony, why it would have to) when we developed from a shared ancestor with creatures most claim do not have minds.

The idea that I question, is the idea that there is no truth in science. Perhaps there is no unbiased, absolute truth, however I like to think that the scientific method leads us to some sort of workable truth. Professor Grobstein said in class that science is not a realm that can uncover truth, perhaps another discipline can (philosophy?), however I’m not so sure I buy this. It seems to me, that science is the only discipline that tries to “rise above” our humble limits and investigate the world. While I understand that this is impossible, due to our obvious limitations and biases in viewing the world based on our perceptional and processing tools, I don’t think that any other discipline has the tools to discover Truth either, for don’t philosophers use the same biased eyes and same hunk of tissue to process what those biased eyes see? I believe that we can discover relative truth, for the human species, based on this earth. To say the scientific story has no more validity than the crackpot drug addict crying out truths on the streets of New York (however real his truth is to HIM) does not rationally make sense. For if science doesn’t provide a sort of truth, how can it really be justified using in public policy. If evolution isn’t the truth as we best know it now, can we really deny the requests of creationists to teach their science in schools?

I don’t think so, and it’s this that I question far more than the issue of whether the soul, embodied in the mind, plays a role in dictating free will and consciousness to the brain. Anybody who is interested in reading more about this should read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Dan Dennett. He discusses the lack of need for a mind, when an evolutionary discussion can explain the brains abilities. A search for a distinct mind, unobeying to the rules of science is simply talking a saltionist leap, and looking for a skyhook, when evolution provides a step by step crane explanation for the brain.

Jackie Marano's picture

Brain makes brain?

I consider myself to be a rather concrete and science-based whenever I think of the brain, I see it as one of the most amazing and miraculous lumps of tissue ever imaginable that is present in many forms of life. In fact, it is something so special/valuable that humans cannot and may not ever come close to creating one of their own. Although we have sent sophisticated probes to Mars and we have build surgery-performing machines that negate the need for the physical presence of a surgeon in an operating room...there is still much missing from these devices. How could we ever create a being/machine that could do what the human/animal brain can do? Could we really create something that could taste, smell, feel, develop/express emotions, experience pain/happiness/fear/attachment/love all at much more? It has always been a mind-blowing phenomenon to me (no pun intended!), just one of those miracles of miraculous though, that it definitely demands consideration.

During class on Thursday, I tried to venture beyond my concrete way of thinking about the brain, and our discussion of science (as a collection of observations that does not necessarily represent the truth) helped. But with that said...I still have some concrete thoughts about the more abstract topics that we discussed. For example, when we compared physical the size of the brain (maybe it weighs 5lbs, smaller than a football) to the infinite size of the sky...can we not also argue that the brain itself (whether actual or a plastic model) is a construction of the brain? So I guess I'm still on the fence...I wonder if Emily Dickinson thought of the brain in this light!

anonstudent01's picture

Brain vs. Brain+Mind

Although at the moment I doubt that my brain is wider than the sky, I agree with Emily Dickinson, Crick and Ramachandran. My brain and my mind are one, I don't see my mind as a separate being and I firmly believe that my brain is responsible for all of my understanding, comprehension and imagining. It is amazing that a lump of tissue can be responsible for so much, but I am definitely not on the fence about this one. My 18 year old brain has been making observations both consciously and without my conscious focus and those observations inform my actions and decisions. I also believe that those actions that may seem to me irrational or unconscious in fact are informed by my nervous system. Its nice to have both a beautiful poem describing this and two respected scientists who agree with it 150 yrs later, that Dickinson could predict the trend of scientific thought on this issue is astounding.