You Are Not Your Brain

Scroll down to watch the video for “The Brain.”

We’ve grown accustomed to headlines breathlessly intoning the latest claptrap from neuroscience: “Brain study shows grandmaster chess players think differently than amateurs do.” “Your brain is like 100 billion mini-computers all working together.”  “Scared of the dentist? This is why, say neuroscientists.”

Of course, neuroscience has made amazing discoveries. But the popular ideas drawn from it are often foolish and, I think, dangerous.

Sure, it’s neat that an fMRI of your brain lights up in a certain way when you order Chinese takeout. But when your “ordering Chinese takeout” neuron is isolated, will that really give us any better understanding of how and why you order Chinese takeout? 

There’s no disputing that when you do stuff, your brain is involved. But the fact that your brain is involved doesn’t mean your brain is the proper focus for understanding that behavior, nor that your brain is the “cause” of that behavior.  

To say that some process in your brain makes you order Chinese takeout so that it can activate the brain’s pleasure centers sounds foolish because it doesn’t explain anything. It posits a theoretical something – yet to be observed – to explain a subjective experience we all are familiar with. 

In the Pixar movie Inside Out, the mind is portrayed as a sensory input – behavior output device. The data from the character’s senses combine with a small number of discrete emotions to somehow control the character’s actions. This is the rugged individualist concept of mind. Mind as an autonomous internal organ. 

But the mind is neither completely internal nor completely autonomous. The mind exists in the context of the environment. You know about Chinese takeout because there is such a thing as Chinese takeout to be known. You’ve learned of it, you’ve eaten it. Your mind is also something that happens in the environment of other minds. You come to consciousness through recognizing other consciousnesses. 

The problem of subjectivity and objectivity is a longstanding one in philosophy. Simply because advancements have been made in studying the brain doesn’t mean subjectivity – the experience of consciousness – can be discounted. Objectivity itself is a concept conveyed and grasped subjectively. 

The neurocentric perspective is a mechanistic and, ultimately, a solipsistic view of the world, where human agency is immaterial, and consciousness is an inconvenience explained away as a byproduct of biological processes, or, worse, as an “illusion” (illusion to whom?).

With all that in mind, I wrote this song. It’s a comedic reductio ad absurdum, each verse portraying a different straw man in the argument. It’s also an homage to the great comic songwriter Tom Lehrer, who was my teacher in college, and remains an inspiration to this day. Peter Lurye made and played the piano arrangement, in his most Lehreran manner. 

To give the song even more levity, for the video, I worked with animator Matt Lintschinger, who created another layer of absurdity with personified brains as foils to my Mr. Science character. 

Let me know what you think.

Further reading: William James, Varieties of Religious Experience; Alva Noë, Out of Our Heads; Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

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