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Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World

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Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World


            “I cannot trust my brain anymore.” This is the one sentence response I would give if anyone were to ask me what I’ve learned this semester in this class, Neurobiology and Behavior. I can say the same thing for this book, Making Up the Mind. This book is written by Chris Frith, a Professor in Neuropsychology at the Wellcome Trust Centre for NeuroImaging at University College London. The subtitle of the book, How the Brain Creates our Mental World, literally tells what this book talks about. Using evidence from brain imaging, psychological experiments, and patient studies, the book explores the relationship between the mind and the brain and “how brain creates our mental world.” Reading this book was like an extension of our class. It provided interesting examples as experimental evidence to support and explain his idea behind brain creating our mental world. Throughout the book, two professors, the Professor of English and the Professor of Physics, appear as the characters who have very different ideas about science and looking down on psychology, psychologists, neuroscience, neuroscientists, basically, anything or anyone that they do not think is “real science.” I like having their responses and questions in the book, because it let me place myself in the book, as if I were talking directly with the author. Of course, I do not have same opinions or views as they did, since I am studying to become a psychologist too. I just identified myself with them, because they were these naïve, unknowledgeable people, like myself in this field of neuroscience and the way Frith explain to them allowed me to understand the materials, which I always thought were ridiculous difficult and unclear, more easily.

            The main argument of Chris Frith in this book is that the mental world is an illusion created by the brain. Many people believe that people behave according to their free will and logical thinking, but the book tells us that brain creates our mind and creates the images of the world as we know it. The fact is that there is no way we can directly interact with the world to find out how and what it is. Everything we know is based on what our brain tells us. Unfortunately, this brain interprets and perceives the world in its own way based on the stimulation it receives through neurons. We think our conscious self is interacting with the world directly, but this is a kind of fantasy, or an illusion created by the brain. This is not to say that the brain distorts or arbitrary creates the image of the mental world. It receives enormous amount of information and it filters the unnecessary information before they reaches our consciousness.

The author presents series of rigorous experimental evidence to basically answer to two questions, How does the brain create the world? and How does it create the mind?

            Frith used examples from a damaged brain to illustrate how brain activity creates false knowledge. Many of patients with epilepsy experience visual hallucinations, for example, spinning or flashing simple colored shapes, which is known as an “auro” just before a seizure occurs. This also appears in seizures brought by other causes, like flu. These images are quite vivid that patients can describe the images in details or even give visual descriptions of them. However, those are false knowledge about the physical world acquired by abnormal neural activity. The author used this as an example to confirm that we can create false knowledge about the physical world by stimulation in the brain; An example of epilepsy demonstrated that activity in the brain can create a false experience of something happening in the outside world.

However, this is the example from a damaged brain and it is not as convincing if he does not provide an example of this illusion by a normal brain, and he does present it too.

            Frith said that we think we perceive the world instantly, without effort, and perceive the whole visual scene in vivid detail. However, this also is an illusion. We can only see the middle of the visual scene in detail and in color and we can only detect light and shade beyond about 10 degrees. Therefore the edge of our view is blurred and has no color. However, we are not normally aware of this blurring at the edges of our vision, because our eyes are constantly moving so the center of vision can be at any part of the scene. But even when we think we have looked at everything in the scene, we can still delude ourselves and the example of this is called “change blindness.” He gave an example of two pictures of a military transport plane standing on an airport runway. Viewers are to find the difference between the two pictures and the answer, a missing engine in one photo, is right in the middle of the picture. However, most people, including myself, cannot notice that until it is pointed out. This is because we only perceive the gist of the scene and does not have all the details in our mind. Unless someone draws our attention to it, we cannot notice the particular detail in the scene, even though we think we do. So this showed that even the normal brain makes the visual scene in front of us false.

            The author also introduced other visual illusions, like the Hering illusion, where the horizontal lines appear bent even though we know that they are straight. These examples resembled how our class was structured, which was my favorite part of the class and this book. It is easy to make a claim but to actually get through others’ minds is difficult, especially the ideas about brain, which we cannot see the evidence with our bear eyes so easily. But by using these interesting examples, the book and our class made the concept more concrete and easily accessible by non-experts. 

            I also enjoyed how he made remarks about being a psychologist throughout the book. As a psychology major, it really spoke to me and related to my personal experiences. For example, he talked about a question he got from a “cocky young man with no tie,” “You’re a psychologist? So can you read my mind?” I actually got this exact question several times when I said I am majoring psychology. However, his reaction to this question was different than mine. He said, we all can read each other’s minds all the time and that is how we can exchange ideas and create culture. And how our brains enable us to access those private worlds in the mind of others is a question that can be answered by this book. So next time I heard the same question, I will react differently.

            Talking about brain can be intimidating to many people. I was scared when I first signed up for this class and when I first opened this book. However, the both approached the non-experts, like myself, in very interesting, not-so-scary ways. I only introduced few examples of illusion created by brain from this book, which were my favorites. But Frith also introduced a range of examples from scientific studies, literary quotes, and even pieces of art. And he talked about how prior knowledge and prejudice can affect what we see and how brain perceive things, too. Therefore, when he said, “our brain doesn’t tell us everything it knows,” I understood just fine what this means and how I can know this. This is not to say I understood everything that is said in this book and was surprised by what brain does to us. As my first sentence of this paper shows, I am quite shocked by the fact that brain creates our mental world and they are not always true or everything there is. But I am ready to face the “reality” and see the world and perceive my brain differently. I would like to end this paper with my favorite quote from this book. “Our research must be relevant, understandable, and best of all, fun” (p.102). I think this describes the nature of this book and our class perfectly.


kgould's picture

It gives me peace of mind to

It gives me peace of mind to know that while my perceptions, the environment that my brain makes up for me, may not be experienced by others, that makes them no less relevant (or "less wrong") in the context of my personal experience of the world.

As far as trusting your brain is concerned, I think that it's very important to continually question the ways in which we see and understand the world and your commentary on Frith's book is exactly why we should be careful about assuming "truth" out of anything.

Just because we see it or don't see it, perceive something or not, makes it no less "real" for the beholder. Which isn't to say we should indulge all visual lapses or hallucinations, just that, in the ways that our brain makes sense of stimuli, there are lots of little quirks that give us a very interesting, unique world views.

jpfeiffer's picture

"I can't trust my brain anymore"

I found this statement particularly interesting and extremely though provoking. I think that many people would find extreme uneasiness about not being able to 'trust' their brains. This is exemplified best I would say in the views of many people and brain disorders such as Alzheimer's. Many are utterly terrified of this disorder because it causes their brain to distort the way their minds think making it impossible to remember loved ones and events.

I also thought that it was interesting and would agree with Frith in the idea that our brain creates our mind and creates images of the world as we know it. One instance that struck me when I read this is how two people, when placed in the same environment can have two completely different interpretations about what they are seeing and experiencing.  Of course this idea may be a bit broad and not supported by much considering they are two different people with different backgrounds, yet I still think it may shed light on the validity of Frith's ideas.

Jessica Watkins's picture

A Stranger in Our House?

It's interesting to think of the brain as something that controls us, as opposed to something that we use to control our own destiny--it's almost as if the brain is a stranger inside of our bodies, something that taunts us with the insincere promise of stability and control when it knows quite well what it's capable of doing.  On that note, should we put ourselves in the position to "trust" our brains, or are they just another organ about which we shouldn't think twice? Thus far the brain has proven to be something that functions quite adequately on its own--if it's not broken, why think about and try to "fix" it?

Marc Bedard's picture

Chris and Uta Frith on BBC Radio 3's NightWaves

A very interesting conversation with Chris and Uta Frith
3 days left to listen

Last broadcast on Monday, 21:15 on BBC Radio 3.
Episode image for Chris and Uta Frith and Rana Mitter was aired last Monday May 10. It can still be heard from the program website til next Monday. After that you may ask me to send you a link.

As part of the BBC's year of science programmes, Night Waves is running a special series of extended interviews with leading scientists from Britain and the rest of the world. Each month scientific figures talk about their research specialism, their wider scientific views, their personal background and their involvement with broader cultural and political questions.

Tonight, Rana Mitter interviews husband and wife team Chris and Uta Frith. Both are eminent neuroscientists, leaders in their fields - Chris Frith, Emeritus Professor at the Wellcome Trust specialises in schizophrenia and Uta Frith, Professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London in autism - which means that they both working in what has been called "the social brain". Rana talks to them about the nature of these illnesses, the strong public perception of them, and the illnesses' sometimes very high political profile - and how the latest wide-ranging scientific research on the brain is changing our understanding of them. And Rana asks them: how does a scientific relationship co-exist with a marriage?

Mon 10 May 2010 21:15 BBC Radio 3

Paul Grobstein's picture

not trusting one's brain, and beyond

Though not everyone will agree, I think your "I cannot trust my brain anymore" together with "I am ready to face the "reality" and perceive the world and my brain differently" is not only "relevant, understandable, and ... fun."  And if it isn't the "reality," its at least useful.  And a useful step in dealing with a universe in which nothing is certain?  See Writing Descartes and Fellow travelling with Richard Rorty

Skeptical's picture

How the Brain Creates our Mental World and vice versa...

We can prove everything and its contrary. Though the author brings an interesting angle, according to your rendition he fails to look in the mirror and at how we are also creating the brain, for if we push the bundaries of brain activities, it would be interesting to compare an individual deprived of all stimuli from day one and then the same individual made fully aware of everything in a situation of poverty, a situation of wealth, etc. and see how his perception of the world influences any brain activity which then influences the mental world and what is "brainy" and what is "mental".