We Need to Stop Talking About the Brain Like It's Separate From the Body

We think that the brain is more powerful, mysterious, and self-contained than it really is.

by Shayla Love
Mar 20 2018, 6:22pm

“Is it possible that everything truly significant about you is in your brain—that in effect, you are your brain?” This is a question Alan Jasanoff, a professor at MIT and a trained biologist, poses early on his new book, The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are.

It's tempting to feel that everything that's important about ourselves and our identities is held within the three pounds of flesh in our skulls. The brain is often described as the control center for all our emotions and personality. It's at the center of research on consciousness, mental illness, and behavior.

But we are living in an age that glorifies the brain's autonomy, Jasanoff argues. We are caught up in what he calls the "cerebral mystique": We believe that the brain is an one-person show, a sole actor on the stage, when in fact there are many other players in the wings. If we don't acknowledge them, we could be missing out on how the brain really works.

While the brain certainly plays a crucial role all those things, we tend to forget that it is an organ just like any other, he says. It's subject to the same biological rules and physiological processes, and is influenced by external forces in subtle and powerful ways.

I spoke with Jasanoff about his new book, out last week, and how to bring the brain down off its pedestal.

What’s the cerebral mystique?

I sort of invented this term. I use it to describe a group of stereotypes about the brain that tend to make it seem more powerful, mysterious, and self-contained than it really is, a little bit like a soul.

Pictures are one of the ways the cerebral mystique shows itself. If you look at the majority of books about the brain you'll see this kind of glowing translucent brain on the cover; not all, but many of them. It exemplifies the sense of wonder and awe that people associate with the brain, a little bit like a supernatural entity. I think this is an un-biological way to look at the brain. Of course it's very enticing, but I argue that it contributes to a distorted view of what the brain is doing for us and what the difference between having a brain is and having a soul is.

Can you compare the way we think about the brain to the way we do other organs? And ultimately, what harm is it to think of our brains as the carrier of our souls?

One of the chief ways is that we tend to view the brain almost inorganically, more like a computer than part of a body. There's a ubiquitous analogy of the brain to the computer that probably almost everybody has encountered in some way. A closely related cliché is that the brain is super complex beyond our understanding. You'll find many people commenting how we'll never understand the brain. It's the most complex thing in the known universe.

Both this hyper-complex nature and the computer-like description of the brain are often played up in a way that makes the brain almost seem like it's not part of our body. Like it’s not part of biology and possibly even not part of nature. It leads to something that I call the "brain-body distinction," a little bit like the old "mind-body distinction," but updated for the modern world.

The brain also has a reputation for controlling the body. Many people have heard the phrase "The brain is a control center of the body." Of course there's a lot of truth to that, but it emphasizes this mono-directional, top-down control that the brain has over the body. In fact, there's a lot of bi-directional interaction between the body and the brain. The body controls the brain too, and so does the environment.

What harm is it in having these views? Of course, each one of these stereotypes has a grain of truth. But in aggregate and in their more extreme forms, they're limiting in how we think about what the brain does for us. The controller stereotype is probably the most limiting, because it desensitizes us to the influence of our surroundings over us. It also limits how we think about human behavior. The more we think of our brains as inscrutable and all-powerful, and the more we identity ourselves with what goes on in our brains alone, the less sensitive we are to many of the factors outside the brain that help make us who we are.

We often assume that our brains are in control of our emotional responses. What are some examples of sensory or environmental influences that can change how we feel our emotions?

We have, as conscious entities, the sense that we're in control of ourselves, including our emotions. In reality, everything we do and feel is linked to forces outside our brains and even outside our bodies. Our brains, even though we think of them as command centers, are coupled in deterministic physical ways to all kinds of influences both inside and outside of us.

Environmental features like light, temperature, colors: they influence our moods and emotional decisionmaking. Probably the most famous example is this thing called Seasonal Affective Disorder. It's a kind of depression that people feel in low-light levels in Northern climates in winter.

There is also a phenomenon called heat-based aggression. As temperature rises, even just a few degrees in our ambient environment, aggression levels tend to go up. There was this amazing meta-analysis that was published in Science magazine that showed numerous examples of this. One that I thought stood out was this example of police officers firing their guns more often in training exercises that were held at higher temperature versus lower temperature.

We're constantly being bombarded by sensory input. We think of that as, "Okay, this is the data that we get to act on because we're in control." But actually sensory input that comes into our eyes, ears, mouths, and skin actually does what it wants with us to a large extent.

That reminds me of that study that found that when judges are hungry, they give harsher sentencing.

Exactly, that's the famous result that found that judges tend to give lighter sentences after lunch. There are so many things in our lives that influence our attitude. Even peripheral pain in our bodies can put us in a bad mood. When you stop to think through them, many of these things are obvious and intuitive. When I'm in a better mood, I might be less likely to sentence someone to death.

How does your perspective apply to our understanding of something like mental illness? We live in an age where it's so biologically framed, and based on the brain and dysfunction of the brain.

There's been a major movement to redefine mental illness as brain disease. There's a very worthwhile reason to do that because many patients have significant cultural barriers to seeking treatment, and this way of casting mental illness helps. In other respects, equating mental illness to brain disease is quite misleading and in some cases even harmful.

One is medically, in terms of therapy. Patients who view mental illness as a brain disease are more likely to take a treatment that they perceive as acting directly on the brain, even if that treatment actually isn't necessarily the right choice for them. The last couple of decades have seen a shift away from the more behavioral types of therapy towards drugs.

The other thing is that patients who feel, not that they have a mental illness, but that they actually have a broken brain may view that flaw as more inherent and immutable than something that could be treated socially, the way that the old-fashioned view of mental illness was perceived. That also applies to how other people view people with mental illness. If I have a brain disorder people may seek to distance themselves from me because they view me as flawed or dangerous.

There’s an even larger problem with reducing mental disorders to a brain disorder, and that has to do with the definition of mental disorders themselves. Mental disorders come about through cultural factors, through the consensus of many doctors and stakeholders discussing these things. They're heavily culturally defined. Just about 60 years ago homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. Does that mean it's a brain disease? In other countries there are different concepts of mental disorders. Are those different brain diseases? Do we not have those brain diseases here? I'm not saying that there isn't a correlation between what goes on in the brain and what goes on in those psychological conditions, but to just call it brain disease seems pretty reductionist.

And if depression or mental illness is just a brain disease, it's not very encouraging to create social programs in order to help people deal with things like poverty at developmental ages and other factors like that.

That's right. There is this broader social dimension both in how mental disorders are defined and also in the causes of mental disorders. Different parts of our own society have pretty different epidemiological profiles of mental health. One remarkable finding that actually dates back to the early 20th century, the 1930's, is the finding that being born or growing up in an urban area actually correlates with schizophrenia. There are other such relationships that clearly point to dimensions that operate well outside individuals and that can influence mental health.

What about the study of consciousness? People have described this as the final frontier for neuroscience: finding where and how consciousness is expressed in the brain. But given your perspective, is it wrong to be looking for consciousness only in the brain?

I'm a neuroscientist, and I've chosen to spend most of my life studying things in the brain, so absolutely not. I don't think it's wrong to look for elements of consciousness or virtually any other cognitive or behavioral function in the brain.

On the other hand I would say that no brain function is completely separable from bodily and environmental context. Consciousness is something that may require the brain, and it may depend on the brain in an absolutely central way. But what we're conscious of is always, almost always, something outside of the brain. Consciousness of bodily functions obviously depends on the body. Consciousness of environmental events depends on sensory input. These are examples where the brain is not operating in a vacuum.

We can go a little bit further and say that some of the most advanced cognitive functions of our minds are really dependent on the body and the environment in key ways. An example is how the shapes of our bodies actually influence our cognition. This is a notion called "embodied cognition." An example is composer Paganini, who was a famous violinist and who wrote music. He was notable in part for having unbelievably flexible joints. He had these fingers that could bend in all these kinds of weird ways, and it enabled him to play pieces on the violin that nobody else could play, that in turn inspired his musical compositions. He wrote pieces that only he could play. His mind was a product of his body or, the cerebral mental activity of composing music was a product of his body.

What are your thoughts about proposed technologies that preserve the brain, as a way to preserve “you” after death? Recently there was mention of a startup that will preserve your brain in microscopic detail, with the promise that later it can upload it somewhere so that you can exist again. What would that form of existence be like if the brain was isolated away from the body?

There are now a couple of companies that advertise this service of neuro-preservation, or preserving the brains of subjects who've just died. The hope is that either the brain could be scanned and uploaded into some kind of simulated environment, or I believe it's been discussed that the brain could be rejuvenated and put in a new body once the technology becomes available.

First off, the science is totally speculative at present. We just don't have the technology for it and nobody seems to be on the verge of getting it. But the fact that people are willing to pay for this service is evident of the power of the cerebral mystique.

Even if one could solve all the technical problems of actually getting this to work—preserving the brain properly, analyzing it properly, and wiring it up or simulating it properly—the “you” that you would get out of this wouldn't be the same “you” that went in. If all that was uploaded was the brain and its internal physiology, its experiences would be radically different from those of the embodied brain. That's because things like emotions, and the way that you perceive sensory stimuli from the outside, depend not just on the brain but on how the brain is connected to these things that are coming from outside.

I do think that a deep enough simulation could compensate for that, but what it would have to do is simulate the brain in its body and in the environment as a mutually interacting system. If the uploaded brain is supposed to think and feel the same way we do, then that brain's surroundings, or at least key elements of them, need to be uploaded as well. I think that if you found a real person with a real brain and a similar upbringing they would probably be lot more similar to you than your brain-only simulation living in a computer.

By realizing that our brains are part of this extended system that together determines our thoughts, feelings, values, and goals, we can extract a lesson from that. What is special and worth preserving are not only our individual lumps of brain matter, but the context too–including the environment, the body, and the brain.

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