The unaware brain

This is an article of David Robbe, neurophysiologist at the Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS) in  Barcelona. His research focuses on the understanding of the relationship between actvity of neuronal population and behavior.

Thanks for this contribution in the brain awarness week David!

The unaware brain

A warning: this post is not intended to somehow disregard the work of the thousands of researchers that dedicate their life to the study of (what I consider as) the most fascinating organ our body hosts. No, here I am taking advantage of the blog owners’ kind invitation to express a personal opinion, or let’s say a personal preoccupation about the language scientists use to describe the brain and its relation with cognition. By cognition I simply intend to describe all those complicated things we can do thanks to our brain: writing a blog, remembering the lyrics of our favorite songs, recognizing a friend in a crowded station, jogging …oups running is not cognition … or is it ? (Maybe a future post topic … ). And the main motivation to write this short comment is the conviction that spreading erroneous concepts on the relation between brain and cognition will at best preclude the understanding of the human nature and at worst have dangerous consequences on our societies.

OK enough blabla. Here I was a few weeks ago visiting with my little family the Cosmo Caixa of Barcelona, a really really cool scientific museum for kids and grown-ups. Lucky me there was a special exhibit called ¨Abracadabra, Il·lusionisme i ciència¨. And here is reproduced for you the introductory panel that still stands today at the entrance of the exhibit: ¨An illusion is a combination between what we perceive of reality and what expect from it. The brain does everything: the brain perceives, the brain interprets what has been perceived and the brain modifies what has been perceived to create illusion, intuition and expectation. […] The brain has various ways to approach reality, for example through art, through revelation and through science¨. Now let me be the magician here. In the above quote, replace ¨the brain¨ by ¨the human being¨. How does that works? In fact it just sounds right. The original quote however displays a widespread conceptual mistake among the neuroscientist community. No and no (and this is a brain lover that speaks) the brain does not perceive or approach reality through revelation. For these two types of behaviors you will need, in addition to you brain, sensors, muscles and last but not least an outside world. Generally the persons using this language will assure you that they don’t mean exactly that the brain perceives. It is just a way of speaking, a shortcut to say that our brain generates perception. And they will assure you proudly that the generation of perception (or any cognitive function) by the brain is a scientific fact that should be taught at school like gravity because 1) some specific areas of the brain are activated during specific cognitive state and 2) if those brain regions stop working (disease, trauma..) cognition will be altered. Those two points form the base of what is called the materialist or cognitivist though, and can be more generally expressed as follow: cognition in its broad sense is internal. It happens in the brain.

I could be wrong but I expect only a fraction of the scientist community to be shocked by the cognitivist motto. It carries however a deep conceptual mistake1 that can be illustrated in the following way. We all know Lance Armstrong, multiple winner of the tour de France. He did not win last year edition. Let’s imagine for the sake of the argument that he failed to win because his bike’s frame broke in the most important race. Will we say that his winning capacities reside in his bike or that his bike (when working fine) won 7 times the Tour de France? No, nobody will say that because without a bike, Lance Armstrong the road racing cyclist is not a road racing cyclist anymore. In other words, to win a road bike race you’ll need a bike but that will not be enough. Similarly to perceive or engage in art or religion you will need a brain but also additional conditions. Indeed materialists (or cognitivists) confound a power and the conditions of execution of that power. The brain is a condition (not even sine qua non in fact2) of cognition, but it is not cognition. I hope this conceptual reminder will not be perceived as an attempt to diminish the role of our brain to both normal and pathological behaviors. I am only driven by the conviction that deeper understanding of the brain will only be attained if we acknowledge that it shares with our body and its environment an inseparable responsibility in the emergence of our behaviors. Inversely isolating the brain from those two partners will generate confusion and result in delays to cure brain-related disease.

As a positive close up of this post, I’ll finish with the following remark: isn’t it amazing, that on one side evolution managed to hide our brain behind our protective skull while on the other side human decided to protect the computational hardware (processor) of computers well hidden in its metallic body. I personally take this observation like that:  the often-overlooked position of the brain in our body has by itself (without entering the neuronal mechanism level) a strong impact on the way we behave, on the way we create.

Happy brain awareness week!

1 The mind’s provisions : a critique of cognitivism by  Vincent Descombes

2. How the Body Shapes the Way We Think. A New View of Intelligence by Rolf Pfeifer and Josh C. Bongar

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