Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions

By Jaak Panksepp | Go to book overview

Appendix C
Dualism in the Neurosciences

What is the mind? Does it simply emerge from the biological functions of the brain? Most neuroscientists, who ascribe to monistic beliefs, now believe this is the case. Many others, who hold dualistic worldviews, do not agree. They believe mind and brain are fundamentally different, asserting in the most extreme cases that the two cannot be definitively joined through any neuroscientific or neuropsychological analysis. Some ascribe to a less radical form of dualism, believing that mental and neural activities interact at specific areas of the brain. The most famous champion of such views was the French philosopher René Descartes, who, perhaps as a matter of political-religious expediency, 1 suggested that the human mind and brain interact within the pineal gland. This left the province of the body to science and that of the human mind and soul to theology. The dilemma this debate embodies is as old as our ability to speak (see Appendix B), even though philosophers only started to worry about it in earnest after Descartes announced his unusual take on the matter.

Certainly dualism, or the mind-body problem, is tightly linked to the nature of language, historical records of which go back only about 20,000 years. Indeed, it is quite possible that the mind-body problem is merely a reflection of our brain's linguistic abilities -- the ability to generate symbolic paradoxes and layers of meaning that do not exist in nature. Words can easily create semblances of meaning that are pure fantasies-but powerful ones that can change the world.

The remarkable idea that there is a mind that can operate independently of the complexities of the brain is not currently a popular one in modern neuroscience, but there are many cognitive scientists who are trying to simulate mental processes computationally. 2 Thus, the issue does need some attention by neuroscientists even in this modern era when the ready availability of computers has given us a powerful metaphor to make the mind-body dichotomy more understandable than it has traditionally been: Invisible, mindlike software functions, which consume very little energy, can easily control visible, body-type hardware functions, which consume much more.

We have come to recognize that information is an organized state of matter. Information flow is a distinct "semiphysical" process that can be conceptualized independently of specific forms of matter and energy by which it is instantiated. 3 The term semiphysical is used simply to focus our attention on the fact that the exact physical medium upon which information transfers occur is less important than the formal mathematical concepts that constitute the science of information processing. Thus, computer memories can be generated from a variety of physical substrates engineered to behave in similar ways. Of course, this does not mean that information can exist in our world without the physical instantiation provided by matter and energy. Information is a specific type of interaction between the two. Similarly, mind is an interaction of brain dynamics and environmental events.

Because it is now very clear how low-energy information processes within the brain can control highenergy body processes, most neuroscientists are not terribly interested in the old mind-body debates, Most thinkers are satisfied to believe that mind is simply the brain in action -- namely, they ascribe to the mind-brain identity approach to the problem: For them, mind emerges as naturally from brain functions as digestion emerges from normal gastric processes. Although most brain scientists are happy to believe that mental events simply reflect the neurodynamic informational exchanges within many interacting networks of the brain, and nothing else, there is still substantial controversy among philosophically oriented investigators. Indeed, such issues are being most actively discussed in the ongoing debate about the nature of conscious experience. 4

At one end of the opinion spectrum, some thinkers presently believe that consciousness emerges from quantum-level interactions within matter. To make sense of such ideas, one has to leap many gaps in knowledge-including neuroanatomical, neurophysiological, and neurochemical ones. Most neuroscientists are not willing to tolerate such large leaps of the imagination, and there are even greater leaps that take us well beyond the bounds of reason, firmly into the province of faith. Thus, on the weird side of the spectrum, some farout thinkers are willing to entertain untestable ideas such as the notion that all blades of grass and even pebbles on the beach are imbued with some level of

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