Brain Research and Folk Psychology

By Hinrichs, Bruce | The Humanist, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

Brain Research and Folk Psychology


Hinrichs, Bruce, The Humanist


there is good news for intellectual romantics--those people who look back longingly, even enviously, to historical periods when significant intellectual revolutions were blossoming. How fascinating, how exciting it must have been to be a part of the great paradigm shifts in our conception of the world that we associate with such influential thinkers as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, or Einstein. It is easy to get the feeling that our current understandings are essentially complete, that all major revolutions in our view of the universe have passed us by, and that we in the contemporary world must be satisfied with the vicarious joys and excitement of intellectual awakenings provided by history books, since we will never experience them personally. But in fact--and here is the good news--we are now at the beginning of what may be the most exciting, the most dramatic intellectual revolution of them all: a revolution in our understanding of that most salient part of our universe, the human mind.

A confluence of disciplines today is forming a science of the mind that promises a major advance in our understanding of behavior and mented phenomena. What is emerging from this effort is a conception of the mind so foreign to common notions, so at odds with the view of the average person, that this idea has been called "the astonishing hypothesis" by Nobel laureate Francis Grick, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix. Research and theory from such fields as neuroscience, philosphy, cognitive psychology, modern physics, computer science are converging to provide a bold new picture picture of the mind as a physical component of the natural world, subject to scientific laws, accessible to experimentation, and therefore open to understanding, prediction, and control. The mind, it turns out, is not the elusive, fuzzy, noncorporeal, and transcendent entity imagined for thousands of years but, rather, a pure property of brain activity.

As with all academic endeavors, there are legions of pub fished accounts of this new science appearing regularly in scholarly journals. However, quite unlike most academic endeavors (which are given little attention within the popular culture), summaries of the new discoveries are often reported to the general public via the popular media: television, news papers, magazines, and the like. Herein lies a significant--and, to date, unaddressed--problem. Ironically, although the new mind science is receiving more popular attention than any other academic research, an important distortion of information regularly occurs as ideas are passed from scholar to public. The popular media reflect and interpret these scientific ideas through a lens clouded by erroneous assumptions about mind and bahavior, and the resulting conclusions inaccurately portray the true meaning and implications of the intellectual revolution we are now experiencing.

the revolution

From the classic nineteenth century case study of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker whose frontal lobe was pierced by a metal rod, to the colorful glimpses of brain functioning produced by modern positron emission tomography, brain research has provided increasingly remarkable insights into the mysteries of behavior and mental phenomena. Following his accident, Gage showed behavioral and personality changes which may have been unexpected in 1848 but today are recognized as typical results of damage to the frontal lobe. His and similar case studies initiated the development of new research into the physical representation of personality and emotions in the brain which is only now reaching fruition.

The 1990s have been declared "The Decade of the Brain," and neuroscientific research is occurring at an unprecedented rate; indeed, more has been reamed about the brain in the last twenty years than in all the previous years of human history. Moreover, modem researchers are not restricted to case studies of the unfortunate victims of brain damage. …

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