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There is No Such Thing as “the Brain”

I’m an avid consumer of Dr. Ginger Campbell’s wonderful Brian Science Podcast. I have my Google News and Flipboard set to capture brain news. I follow a cohort of neuroscientists on Twitter. To all intents and purposes, I’m one of a swelling population of brain science junkies.

Fortunately I also have a brain, or rather mind, of my own. A small corner of this cognitive terrain is marked by a sign that reads “Really?”  It’s my private nod to contrarian skepticism. Recently, I’ve been getting frantic messages from this normally quiescent sector of myself. The phrasing varies, but the gist is always the same: “There is no brain.”

At first, I found this idea too stupid to entertain. It’s refuted by every anatomy book on the planet. The brain, we all know, is the most complex object in the known universe. It’s quickly becoming one of the best funded, too, with unlimited money sloshing around university departments, high-tech startups, private foundations and the secret warrens of the military industry. How could anyone doubt the brain’s existence? Presumably, only someone who doesn’t have one.

The Lure of Categories

But step back a moment. Consider how categories form, and how they do their work in language and thought. We divide the cake of reality into slices we can name. These slices quickly appear self-evident. A cat is not a dog. Stars are not planets. France isn’t Spain. In the process, we forget our own role in drawing the boundaries around the objects we distinguish. The categories that seem so blindingly obvious to us are not, in fact, inevitable. Recall Jorge Luis Borges’ inimitable list of animals according to the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge: “Those that belong to the emperor; embalmed ones; those that are trained; suckling pigs; mermaids (or sirens); fabulous ones; stray dogs; those that are included in this classification; those that tremble as if they were mad; innumerable ones; those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush; et cetera; those that have just broken the flower vase; those that, at a distance, resemble flies.”

Borges’ fiction reminds us what every anthropologist knows, that our categories are constructions, not objective realities.

In the case of the brain, there’s a purely anatomical boundary that’s not worth arguing with. But it’s also not worth much as a conceptual tool. What makes the brain an object of fascination (and finance) is the significance with which we load it. In recent years, that significance has been expanding at an exponential rate. The brain is coming to acquire the status of Aristotle’s First Cause. Trace any human emotion, behavior, dilemma or delusion upstream as far as you can: at the top of the mountain sits “the brain,” pouring down its effects in a cornucopia of explanations. The esteemed Ginger Campbell captures the zeitgeist perfectly in the tagline for her podcast. Its purpose, she tells us, is to throw light on “how our brains make us who we are.”

Really? Our brains “make us who we are”? This is not a scientific statement, being neither testable nor refutable. It’s a religious belief, a mythic romance, inflating “the brain” to a kind of ontological ground or existential origin. We seem to be entering the era of brain-worship…

Bodies and Brains

It’s ironic that within the brain itself, the mapping that seemed so clear-cut a decade ago is already falling apart under new and more sophisticated analyses. While before, neuroscientists could rest confident in a one-to-one equivalence of brain area and cognitive function, we now know that most of the important things the brain does are distributed through impossibly complex networks scattered all over the place. Worse still, if one bit of the brain gets damaged, another is likely to take over its role, further messing with our stable brain geography. This should be a warning about the fragility and impermanence of the boundaries we draw around objects—and it should prompt us to question how we use the deceptively simple and vastly overloaded noun “the brain.”

The most significant dent in the hegemony of “the brain” is coming from the field of embodied cognition. That’s a fancy phrase for pointing to the obvious: brains don’t float around in space, linked to the world by a biological Bluetooth.  They are embedded in the total flesh-and-blood organism we call the human body. The essential idea of embodied cognition is that you can’t understand “the brain” and its operations apart from “the body” of which it is a part: they form an indissoluble unity.

This is what makes sense of the apparently insane statement, “the brain does not exist.” Of course the brain exists as an anatomical convenience: a sector of the human body with specific structural, electrical and biochemical properties. What does not exist is “the brain” as a vast, opaque and autonomous cause of all things human.

Zoom Out

Where does this lead us? I’ll continue to relish the latest neuroscientific discoveries, and I’ll celebrate with everyone else the day big funding turns into a cure for Alzheimer’s. But I refuse the invitation to idolize “the brain” as the new Truth of the human condition. On the contrary, I’ll continue to champion a multidimensional mode of thought, to match our multidimensional reality.







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