Steve Talbott

You have by now most likely read dozens of science news stories playing on the fact that researchers can watch areas of the brain "light up" as test subjects perform various activities. What the lighting up of a particular area means, stated more or less exhaustively, appears to be: "something's going on there". But in this field things are happening so fast that excited researchers can't afford to be slowed down by mere hopeless ignorance. One almost suspects a psychedelic element must reside in those glowing, multicolored, instrument-produced images of cerebral tissue, since most of the news reports carry the same howling absurdities.

Here's a typical example. The New York Times (June 22, 1999) reported on research thought to confirm "a theory that the fear of pain is worse than the pain itself". The confirmation lay in the fact that particular areas of the brain lit up during the anticipation of pain, and these were mostly different from, though situated close to, areas that usually light up during the actual experience of pain. That's just about the entire substance of the story, which begins this way:

It is a common reaction: fear of the dentist's drill. Now scientists say the feeling is not only real, but they can show just what happens in the brain to cause it.

And to think that all this time I mistakenly thought my fear was caused by what the dentist's drill was about to do to me! I guess I should really have been fearing that ominous glow in my brain. At least I can take comfort in the researchers' conclusion that my fear is "real", although it's too bad they didn't give me, for comparison, an example of a fear that is not real. It would have been nice to know which fears of mine weren't really there.

It's difficult to decipher what this article (like most others of the same ilk) is actually trying to tell us. But of one thing you can be sure: the chief scientist on the case hopes, as the article tells us, "to use this research to help people with chronic pain". According to the prevailing canons of journalism, every science story needs such a warm and fuzzy benediction, suggesting how the human estate may benefit from the work. This is decidedly not an equal opportunity affair, however; you rarely see such routine statements about the risks of such research.

On Reforming Gray Matter
For all I know, the brain investigations may indeed lead to chemical or other interventions that "work" in one way or another. But progress toward this end will not be aided by the acute conceptual confusions plaguing this kind of research. And the human pain resulting from these confusions may dwarf anything experienced in the dentist's chair.

Given a vague grasp of the fact that "we are psychosomatic organisms", many people -- scientists among them -- seem content to flop blithely back and forth between a brain vocabulary and a mental vocabulary as if there were no distinction between the two. What makes this an inexcusable lack of discipline is the simple fact that, as these vocabularies now exist, no one has the slightest idea how to translate a single term of the one language into a term of the other.

It's certainly true that we can correlate elements of brain physiology with elements of mentality. But this fact is fully consistent with opposite extremes of interpretation -- consistent, that is, with the idea that our thinking and other mental activities somehow "arise" as effects of brain matter, and also with the idea that thinking constructs and employs the brain for its own manifestation. However, which alternative we prefer is irrelevant to the point I'm making, which is that the sloppy shifting between different vocabularies results in the most shameless nonsense.

What, after all, are we to make of references to the brain as if it were the stuff of mind? Should we try to "reform" those brain tissues that light up when we don't want them to, perhaps admonishing them or administering a slap to some recalcitrant gray matter? When researchers say they've found in the brain the "cause" of our fear of dentists, should we work to remove the cause by altering the physiological conditions responsible for the glow? To be a little more topical, are we to remedy the "cause" of our fear of terrorists by tweaking our brains, or do we need to look elsewhere?

Locating Consciousness
We are being swamped by this illuminated-brain craziness. A New York Times headline (Sep. 25, 2001) has researchers "Watching How the Brain Works as it Weighs a Moral Dilemma", while a science article in the Economist (May 25, 2002) talks about "how the brain actually makes decisions". Presumably, if the brain is really doing the decision-making and moral weighing, then the buck stops there and all moral education should be in the form of chemical or surgical "instruction".

As for another article in the Times, "Looking for That Brain Wave Called Love" (Oct. 28, 2000), you might think it's pure jest. But, no, Rutgers anthropologist, Helen Fisher, has run madly infatuated test subjects through an MRI machine to record their brain activity. Which could be a perfectly interesting thing to do, except that she seems to think she is investigating the nature of love. In fact, she complains about the slowness of those who fail to see the value of her work:

It's amazing how scientists don't regard depression or anxiety as a mystery but want to relegate romantic love to the realm of the supernatural.

I'm not sure how the supernatural gets in there, except as a cheap way to declare her own point of view sane and rational. But if you want to consign love (or depression or anxiety) to a realm offering no hope of meaningful and non-mysterious understanding, I can't think of any better way than to equate it with physiology. Respond to your advice-seeking, lovesick friends by explaining how they should interact with or modify appropriate brain tissues, and I guarantee you'll produce a great deal of mystification.

Another article in the Economist (Sep. 21, 2002) tells us that "neuroscientists think they may have pinned down the source of out-of-the- body experiences". The guilty party? None other than the right angular gyrus -- and if you want to fix it, I should warn you that it is not, after all, near the pineal gland, but rather located above and slightly behind the right ear. An odd place, perhaps, for out-of-the-body experiences to lurk, but if an experience has to hide out somewhere, I suppose that's as good a place as any.

Harmonizing the Hemispheres
As I was mulling over a pile of science stories like the ones mentioned above, I chanced upon a 1977 Owen Barfield essay. It concerned the 1976 Reith Lectures, entitled "Mechanics of the Mind", by neurophysiologist Colin Blakemore. Back then brain hemisphere research was becoming popular, and so Blakemore discussed it in his lectures. Picking up on this, Barfield began by noting that "if we know something about the physical structure of the brain, we can either make physical use of that knowledge (surgery, drugs, and so forth), or we can decide that another way of approaching our problem is more appropriate. Let us call it the 'consciousness' way".

Take the two hemispheres, for instance. If a movement is set on foot for "liberating the right hemisphere", that is the imaginative, and relatively feminine, one (and according to the lecturer, there is such a movement), then the campaigners must mean by "liberation" one of two things -- either direct action on the brain itself, or indirect action by the ordinary means of agitation, argument, propaganda; by "the spread of ideas" in fact: in which case no difference whatever is made by calling it "liberation of the right hemisphere", instead of something like freeing the imagination, or liberation of women.

Barfield goes on to "doubt whether the lecturer is capable of grasping such an uncomfortably disjunctive proposition". Which of the alternatives did Blakemore have in mind, for example, when he said,

What we should be striving to achieve for ourselves and our brains is not the pampering of one hemisphere to the neglect of the other (whether right or left) or their independent development, but the marriage and harmony of the two.

It's not that we should disavow either fork of Barfield's disjunctive proposition; both physical intervention and the attention of consciousness to its own contents have their place. It's just that we should not confuse the two or refuse to be clear regarding which one we are talking about. When Blakemore advocated the "marriage and harmony" of the two hemispheres, was he suggesting something like a surgical interweaving of tissues into a more artistically unified physical tapestry, or was he urging certain conscious disciplines? Or was he, through lamentable vagueness, implying the equivalence of the two approaches despite the fact that subjecting yourself to a scalpel doesn't seem to be quite the same activity as, say, participating in the discussions of a gender sensitivity group?

In the actual case, Blakemore disavowed the surgical approach as impossible -- and also as crude compared to direct, cultural influences upon consciousness. And yet (as so often happens in these matters), he immediately flip-flopped. As Barfield puts it, "Dr. Blakemore was not going to let a tedious bit of logical consequence stand in the way of his march towards a peroration". So the scientist rose to the occasion by telling his audience:

. . .without a description of the brain, without an account of the forces that mould human behavior, there can never be a truly objective new ethic based on the needs and rights of man.

So there we go again. If we want an understanding of our needs and rights and the influences upon our behavior -- things we might once have related to our families and workplaces, our social institutions and personal experiences -- now we see that what we really needed all along was a good description of the brain, presumably so we can whip those tissues into shape.

No wonder Barfield gives way to near-despair:

How much longer will it all go on? For how much longer will educated men go on being allured by the ignis fatuus of a "consciousness" accessible to physical experiment and investigation? How much longer will they go on spending untiring energy in pursuit of it?

A Koan

Well, we've now gone on for another quarter century -- and things have only gotten worse. I will not bore you further with recitations from the many contemporary reports on brain research that are simultaneously passed off as reports on mentality. But I do wish to cite Barfield's wonderfully concise statement of the root of the confusion:

Perceiving, and every other mode of consciousness, is categorically other than being perceptible, and therefore [is not] accessible to a merely physical investigation.

That is, we cannot understand perceiving -- the inner reality of perceiving -- in terms of the kinds of outer things given through the act of perceiving, such as brain tissues. We cannot understand the act as the result of its own results. We cannot understand as just another object the activity that constitutes things as objects.

I will leave you with those puzzling remarks, hoping they might serve as a koan of sorts, worthy of some perplexed reflection. I am fully aware that these statements will mostly provoke disbelieving resistance, if not outraged rebellion. They can carry little force for anyone who is still struggling to reconcile the impossible Cartesian notion of mindless matter with the impossible modern notion of mindless mind -- a struggle that yields, as we have seen above, just plain mindlessness.

The real need, I'm convinced, is for us to overcome the entire Cartesian, mind-matter dualism, between the pincers of which our culture has been trapped for the past few centuries. "Overcome", I say, not "accept the original terms of the split and then claim to have overcome it by effectively denying just one of the two domains produced by the false cleavage" (which is the standard tack taken by those legions today who fervently disavow the "Cartesian dichotomy"). The idea of purely objective matter, uninformed by, and genetically unrelated to, the mind that perceives it is just as impossible as the idea of mind unrelated to the matter it informs.

But we will make progress in all this only insofar as we begin to gain vivid experience, within consciousness, of our own activity in perceiving and thinking. The effect of this will be rather like turning much of modern thinking inside out. The exercise, however, is a long and difficult one. I do hope to write about it before long.

Meanwhile, we are left with a view that leaves no room for the human being as anything other than a machine among machines. More alienation, pain, and suffering have flowed from this conviction than anyone could ever tally. If you want to meliorate this pain, you may watch the brain light up until the cows come home, and you can attempt to comfort, bathe in drugs, or otherwise manipulate the cerebral tissues to your heart's content, but you will never by these means touch the actual problem. It is a problem of consciousness, not a problem of the brain. Despite the confused rhetoric coming at us from all sides today, they are not the same thing.

© 2002 Steve Talbott

Steve Talbott, author of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst currently edits NetFuture, a freely distributed newsletter dealing with technology and human responsibility. NetFuture is published by The Nature Institute, 169 Route 21C, Ghent NY 12075 (tel: 518-672-0116; web: http://www.natureinstitute.org). You can reach Steve at stevet@oreilly.com

This article was originally distributed as part of NetFuture: http://www.netfuture.org/. You may redistribute this article for noncommercial purposes, with this notice attached.