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What Is Psychology? Thalia Wheatley Have you ever wondered what it means to be you? I’m not talking about how you might describe yourself. I’m talking about what it means to be the only you that will ever exist—the only person that you,and no one else,ever could be.The fact that each of us has a unique mind—or psyche, in Greek—has been a source of fascination for thousands of years, stretching back to the even older concept of having a soul. When we die, our bodies remain but we are gone. Our mind, more than any other part of our body, is the bit that makes us us. But what actually is a mind and what makes it tick? These are the primary questions of psychology, the study of the mind. What Is a Mind? Plato, and later Descartes, believed that the mind exists separately from the physical body. This view is called dualism (mind and body are dual entities) and it is appealing because who we are feels greater than the mere product of biological machinery. Daydreaming about a loved one or deciding on college doesn’t feel like billions of neurons flickering on and off in a pattern. It feels separate—transcendent even. Yet if I looked inside your skull I would only see a brain.The brain,sometimes called wet matter,weighs about three pounds and has the consistency of cooked oatmeal. Everything we do, think, and feel is caused by waves and patterns of electrical and chemical activity coursing through that oatmeal. Does that lose some of the magic? If you think it does, try thinking of it this way: three pounds of brain tissue somehow creates art and music, produces feelings of joy and pain,generates insight and humor,connects with others,and What Is Psychology? 287 plans for the future. The world’s fastest computers can only do a tiny fraction of the things our brains do every day. How the brain does all of these things and more is one of the deepest mysteries in science. Figuring it out will keep psychologists and neuroscientists busy for a very long time. But if we don’t know how the brain works, then why are scientists so confident that mind and brain are inseparable? One reason comes from case studies of people who have brain damage.These cases revealed that if you damage the brain, you damage the mind. And different kinds of brain damage change the mind in different ways.Let’s look at three of psychology’s most famous patients. Phineas Gage: Losing Oneself One September day in 1848,Phineas Gage was working as a railroad foreman in Cavendish,Vermont.His job that day was setting blasting holes,which entailed digging a hole, filling it with gunpowder and sand, and tamping the mixture down with a heavy three-foot-long iron rod.While Phineas was tamping down one of the holes,the gunpowder ignited,turning the heavy iron rod into a missile. Unfortunately for Phineas,his head was in the way.The rod shot up through his cheek, behind his left eye, and out the top of his skull. Along the way, the front of his brain—the area just behind his forehead—was obliterated. The blast threw Phineas backward,but he reportedly never lost consciousness. Instead,he got up,walked over to an oxcart,and was driven into town to see the doctor. After a few weeks of painful recovery, he seemed to be fine. A famous physician at the time declared him “quite recovered in his faculties of body and mind” and in “full possession of his reason.” However, his friends noticed a change.The Phineas Gage after the accident was not the Phineas Gage from before.The same physician that noted his miraculous recovery would later add: “He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires . . . A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man . . . His mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.’” Phineas Gage’s condition was one of the first times that physical brain matter was linked to something purely psychological.When Phineas lost part of his brain, he kept much of his mind but lost who...


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