Thursday, August 16, 2012

Brain > Mind?

My degrees are in psychology, but I consider myself a (cognitive) neuroscientist. That's because I am interested in how the mind works and I think studying the brain can give us important and useful insights into mental functioning. But it is important not to take this too far. In particular, I think it is unproductive to take the extreme reductionist position that "the mind is merely the brain". I've spelled out my position (which I think is shared by many cognitive neuroscientists) in a recent discussion on the Cognitive Science Q&A site The short version is that I think it is trivially true that the mind is just the brain, but the brain is just molecules, which are just atoms, which are just particles, etc., etc. and if you're interested in understanding human behavior, particle physics is of little use. In other words, when I talk about the mind, I'm talking about a set of physical/biological processes that are best described at the level of organism behavior.

The issue of separability of the mind and brain is also important when considering personal responsibility, as John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz pointed out in a recent piece in the New York Times and in their study (Monterosso, Royzman, & Schwartz, 2005). (Full disclosure: Barry's wife, Myrna Schwartz, is a close colleague at MRRI). Their key finding was that perpetrators of crimes were judged to be less culpable given a physiological explanation (such as neurotransmitter imbalance) than an experiential imbalance (such as having been abused as a child), even though the link between the explanation and the behavior was matched. That is, when participants were told that (for example) 20% of people with this neurotransmitter imbalance commit such crimes or 20% of people who had been abused as children commit such crimes, the ones with the neurotransmitter imbalance were judged to be less culpable. 

Human behavior is complex and explanations can be framed at different levels of analysis. Neuroscience can provide important insights and constraints for these explanations, but precisely because psychological processes are based in neural processes, neural processes cannot be any more "automatic" than psychological processes, nor can neural evidence be any more "real" than behavioral evidence. Monterosso, J., Royzman, E.B., & Schwartz, B. (2005). Explaining Away Responsibility: Effects of Scientific Explanation on Perceived Culpability Ethics & Behavior, 15 (2), 139-158 DOI: 10.1207/s15327019eb1502_4

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