The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are

Alan Jasanoff, a pioneering neuroscientist, argues that we are more than our brains. The publishers say:

“To many, the brain is the seat of personal identity and autonomy. But the way we talk about the brain is often rooted more in mystical conceptions of the soul than in scientific fact. This blinds us to the physical realities of mental function. We ignore bodily influences on our psychology, from chemicals in the blood to bacteria in the gut, and overlook the ways that the environment affects our behaviour, via factors varying from subconscious sights and sounds to the weather. As a result, we alternately overestimate our capacity for free will or equate brains to inorganic machines like computers. But a brain is neither a soul nor an electrical network: it is a bodily organ, and it cannot be separated from its surroundings. Our selves aren’t just inside our heads- they’re spread throughout our bodies and beyond …”

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A review of this book (by Steven Poole in The Wall Street Journal) says:

“We hear constantly …. that the brain is a computer. This is a bad metaphor, Mr. Jasanoff insists. Computers run on electricity, so we concentrate on the electrical activity within the brain; yet there is also chemical and hormonal signaling, for which there are no good computing analogies. Rhetorical appeals to the brain’s amazing complexity, furthermore, lead easily to a mystical acceptance of its ineffability. Brain-scanning technologies are still in their infancy and, Mr. Jasanoff explains, provide only very crude and ambiguous data—yet the beautiful, colorized pictures from such scans are taken as a microcosmological map of our inner lives. The brain becomes a kind of secular soul. …

‘The mental functions we usually attribute to the brain,’ he argues, ‘are actually functions of the body as a whole.’ Emotions arise through the interaction of physiological processes (racing heartbeat, sweaty palms) and cognition. We have an enteric nervous system—an independent secondary brain within the gut—and the bacteria that live within us might have profound effects on our personality. Even changes in ambient light or temperature can change our minds. ‘Higher temperature,’ Mr. Jasanoff writes, ‘leads to increased hostility and violence across a huge range of geographic settings and time scales.’

… In medicine, a grave consequence of the cerebral mystique is to perpetuate the stigma of psychiatric disease. Accepting that our minds have a physical basis relieves us of the traditional tendency to view mental illnesses as moral failings, but recasting psychiatric conditions as brain disorders can be almost as damning to the patients affected. Society tends to view ‘broken brains’ as less curable than moral flaws, and people thought to have problems with their brains can be subject to greater suspicion as a result. Equating mental disorders with brain dysfunction also skews the treatments people seek, leading to greater reliance on medications and less interest in behavioral interventions such as talk therapy. And seeing mental illnesses purely as brain diseases overlooks an even deeper issue—the fact that mental pathologies themselves are often subjectively defined and culturally relative. …”

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