Tag Archive | neuroscience

Are You Just Your Brain? Part 2

This is part 2. Part one can be found here.

We had spent weeks in the hospital watching my father deteriorate. One doctor would say he was getting better. Another (and I’m not paraphrasing much) that we might as well just go ahead and pull the plug. One of us would be there each night keeping watch, reclining in a chair, being woken up every other hour as the techs came in to respond to beeps or to check vitals.

I had spent the whole day and previous night at the hospital. I had only been home a few hours when my brother came by to bring me back. Dad wasn’t expected to make it through the night. The hospital was an hour and fifteen minutes away. My memory of the drive is missing.

In the room, midnight passed. Then two o’ clock. Then three.

Eventually, a nurse pulled us aside. He tactfully informed us that my father’s blood pressure had been too low for too long and he was now brain dead. It was around 5 AM. After our all-night vigil it seems the he had already passed the point of no return. We had unceremoniously missed it.

“The man that was your father is gone.” is the phrase that I remember.

I walked back into the room trying to grasp what I had just been told. His chest was still rising and falling with the help of a respirator. The monitor showed his heart was still beating. He just looked asleep.

Not long afterward his body finally succumbed as well and I became acquainted with the experience of losing a parent.

How do we explain this event? How does this sound:

Several physical bodies were moving through space as the result of electrochemical impulses. One physical body was subject to a series of causes that resulted in the complete and permanent cessation of those impulses. This generated an acute and intense chemical response in the other bodies that permanently altered their neurological structure.

Are both accounts true? Is one more complete than the other? As the one who experienced it, I can tell you the second account is missing quite a bit. I’m also confident that, from the doctor, to the nurse, to my family, to the people that had to move my father’s body, the second account doesn’t really capture the event. Maybe it describes an aspect of it, but when reduced to simple physical matter moving around it’s simply not the same. As an explanation, it’s an insult.

Getting back to the article I mentioned earlier, there was a helpful little graphic that showed how the computer interprets brainwaves to reconstruct images:

After gathering enough data certain patterns are associated with different aspects of the object being viewed. One pattern corresponds to red, another to circles, another to certain movement, etc. Eventually the computer “knows” that every time that pattern appears, the person is looking at something red, or a circle, or whatever the case may be.

“Thinking back to the rat’s nest of lines from my own fMRI readings—all that from looking at a simple black-and-white photo—it’s a little creepy to think that our mental processes can be reduced to binary code in this fashion. But then again, so is the notion of a mysterious black box of neurons controlling everything we do and think. “It’s all numbers,” Gallant says. “The trick is to do good bookkeeping.” Source: The Quest to Read the Human Mind by Lisa Katayama (emphasis mine)

But does that mean that my thoughts can really be “reduced to binary code”? Are my thoughts about my son nothing really but electrochemical impulses? Most researchers I have read, and most articles (such as the one linked above) implicitly assume so.

CORRESPONDENCE VS IDENTITY

When I read a book, what am I looking at?  Physically just ink and paper.  That’s it.  But depending on the arrangement of the ink into letters, words, and punctuation, the physical matter corresponds to something not found on itself.  That is, they correspond to ideas.  So where are the ideas?  Are ideas and thoughts merely those electrical impulses in our brains?

If I think of a blue rhino, where is the image that I “see” in my mind?  Can researchers look at my brain and see the rhino?  Based on this research we might say, “Of course!  If the computer can reconstruct what you’re seeing, then the images are in your brain.”   But what does it mean to say that what I think about, or the images I see are in my brain?

One of the three basic laws of logic is the law of identity.  Simply put, it states that an object is what it is.  A is A.  A fork is a fork.  A basketball is a basketball.  A basketball has all the properties of a basketball.  It does not have the same properties of a blueberry…or a blue rhino.

Pretty simple.  So simple, so basic, and so unavoidable that we use it without thinking about it.

So the question is, is the image I picture in my mind identical with the the substance in my brain?  Or do the impulses in my brain correspond to the picture in the same way that the two words “blue rhino” correspond to the  idea of a rhino that is blue?

An imaginary blue rhino has no physical properties.  It’s imaginary.  But the image itself has the properties of being blue, a rhino, even though what I’m seeing doesn’t exist in physical space.  The electrochemical impulses in my brain have physical properties.  They are not blue, and are not shaped like a rhino.  Therefore, they are not identical with the idea, though they may correspond to it.  So why does most scientific research insist that we are nothing but our brains?

THE BUTLER PHILOSOPHY DID IT.

Modern science, like an individual, has a worldview.  And the prevailing philosophy has been summed up nicely by Carl Sagan, “The universe is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”  Matter is all there is.  And whatever is, is matter.  If we reduce and reduce and all we find are particles, then our thoughts, our dreams, our love, and our experience of loss is nothing more than matter in motion.  We have explained ourselves away to nothing.

A history of how this happened would be twice as long as this post, so I won’t get into it here.  But if you keep it in mind, and if you keep reading articles on science of any discipline you’ll see it emerge nearly every time.

There’s much more I could write on this topic alone, but I’ll sum up for now by answering the question: Am I just my brain?

No.  No I’m not.  And neither are you.

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Are you just your brain? Part 1

This is the first part in a two part series. 

Neuroscience fascinates me.

As a Christian, there are certain things I believe are true about the world and about us as human beings.  One of those things is that we are not merely our brains.

I ran across this piece recently which outlines how researchers are now able to reconstruct images from our minds with a fMRI machine.  They have even be able to crudely reconstruct movies shown to subjects on YouTube.

If I’m understanding the article correctly, it works like this:  Scans are taken of the subject’s brain while he/she is viewing various images.  The computer begins to make connections between brain wave patterns and what the subject is looking at when these patterns arise.  As more images and data are recorded, the computer begins to correlate certain patterns with color, others with shape, and so on.  Eventually the subject is shown a picture or movie that is not in the database, and the computer has to reconstruct using other images what it decodes that the subject has seen.  At least that seems to be the basic premise.

The results are murky, but obviously close. Facial features and details are hidden, but when you see the video the subject watched and compare it with the computer reconstruction, you can see it works.

So what do we make of this?  Not just as someone of a particular belief system, but as a human being.  Does this demonstrate that our thoughts and perhaps our very selves are reducible to chemicals and electrical impulses?  Are we just meat machines?