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Mind, Meaning, and the Brain
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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 9.3 (2002) 261-264

Keywords: Mind, brain, meaning, translation, depression.


A Systemic View of the Mind

Progress in brain research over the past two decades demonstrates the power of the neurobiological paradigm. However, this progress is connected with a restricted field of vision typical of any scientific paradigm. The psychiatrist should be aware of this restriction, because, unlike the brain scientist, he deals with patients, not with brains. The restricted view may be described by the terms of (1) reductionism, (2) reification, and (3) isolation.

Reductionism: Neurobiology tends to regard subjectivity as a mere by-product of the brain's activity as a symbol-manipulating machine or an information processor. Consciousness becomes an epiphenomon of the neuronal machinery that, operating behind our back, creates the illusion of a continuous self and of an autonomous will (Churchland 1995; Roth 1996).

Reification: Mental or subjective states seem to be localizable in the brain; thoughts or feelings, it appears, may be observed in the colored illumination of cortical and subcortical structures. This results in the belief that brain images could also show the cause of a mental illness, or even the illness itself, which then manifests, for instance, in a reduced metabolic activity in certain areas of the cortex.

Isolation: As a further consequence, this view isolates the individual patient and considers his illness separated from the interconnections with his environment. However, on these interconnections his personal experiences and dispositions are founded, and it is the actual interpersonal situation that has triggered his present illness.

Walter Glannon's paper successfully counters these tendencies toward a neurobiological reductionism with an extended view of the mind: " . . . the mind is not located in any one place but is distributed among the brain, the body, and the environment." Of course, who observes someone's brain will never see his thoughts, his pain, or his anxiety. For consciousness is not a localizable object or state at all but a process of relating to something: a perceiving of, remembering of, wishing for, aiming at, and so on. Thus on the phenomenological level, there is nothing like a "mental event" that could be isolated from the world and from the stream of conscious experiences. The mind exists only embedded in the world and in the temporal process of life.

The same applies to the biological level: Consciousness is based on the continuous interaction of the brain with the organism, and of the organism as a whole with the environment. The role of the brain for mental phenomena is thus comparable to the role of the heart in the circulatory system or of the lung in the respiratory system. Of course, the lung is the central organ of breathing, but respiration may not be restricted to the lung, nor to the organism as a whole. It means constant exchange with the environment, and there is no sense in asking whether the air taken in still belongs to the surroundings or already to the organism. The same systemic unity is found in the circle of perception and action mediated by the brain: When I am writing a letter, there is no place in the unity of action where my "self" ends and the "world" begins, no border that separates inner and outer worlds.

There is another argument to be raised against the reification of the mind if we consider the aspect of a historical biology. From birth on, our mind as well as the correlated brain structures are essentially formed by social and cultural influences. The brain is not inserted into the world as a prefabricated apparatus but through its plastic development in and from the world. Thus it adapts epigenetically to its specific natural and social environment like a key to a lock. This complementarity makes it impossible to restrict one's view to the anatomic organ and requires an interdisciplinary approach to brain-environment investigation, as for example, under the heading of a "social cognitive neuroscience" (Ochsner and Lieberman 2001).

As Glannon goes on to argue, to overcome neurobiological reductionism, more is required than a defense of subjective consciousness and its irreducible intentional or qualitative aspects; for this impregnable refuge of subjectivity would also remain sterile...

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