Jonah Lehrer, editor for Seed magazine, is the author of “Proust Was a Neuroscientist.”
Thanks to Damien Broderick, PhD.
Since the early 1920s, neuroscience has taught us a great deal about the brain.
Our sensations have been reduced to a series of specific circuits. The mind was imagined as thinking of itself, with thoughts that can be traced back to their cortical source. The most inexpressible emotions have been translated into chemical terms, so that love is defined as a significant amount of dopamine and fear is nothing but an agitated amygdala. Even our sense of consciousness is explained with reference to the dark property of the frontal cortex. As a result, there is nothing intrinsically mysterious about these 3 pounds of shriveled flesh inside the skull. There is no ghost in the car.
The success of modern neuroscience represents the triumph of one method: reductionism. His premise is that the best way to solve a difficult problem (and the brain is the most complicated object in the known universe) is to study its basic parts. In other words, the mind is a particular game of substances, reducible to inhuman laws of physics.
However, although the reductionist method has had an undeniable success, it has real limitations. Not everything can be reduced to tiny particles. For example, consider Beethoven’s symphony. If music were reduced to vibrating air wavelengths, we would actually understand music much less. The impalpable beauty, the visceral emotion, everything would be lost by reducing the sound to simple details. In other words, reductionism excludes much of reality.
The mind is like music. While neuroscience accurately describes our brain in terms of purely material facts, so we are nothing more than a frame of electricity and enzymes, this does not correspond to the way we experience the world. Our consciousness is much more than the sum of the cells of which it is composed.
If neuroscience starts to solve its biggest problems, such as the mystery of consciousness, it needs new methods capable of constructing complex representations of the mind. Sometimes the whole is better understood in terms of the whole. William James was the first to understand this. The 8 chapters with which he begins his 1890 text, “The principles of psychology,” describe the mind in the third person. Nevertheless, with chapter 9, everything changes. James opens this part, “The flow of thought,” with a warning: “Now the study of the mind begins from within.”
With this simple sentence, James attempted to move the subject of psychology. He denied any scientific method that attempted to break down the human mind into a series of individual elements, whether they were sensations or synapses. Modern science, however, did not follow James. In the years following the publication of his book, a “New Psychology” was born and this rigorous science could not tolerate James’s vagueness. Measurements were now in fashion. Psychologists undertook to calculate all the most trivial things. By quantifying consciousness, they hoped to adapt the mind to science. Unfortunately this meant defining the mind in extremely limited terms. The study of experience was banned from the laboratory.
But the time has come to return to the experience. Neuroscience has actually investigated sound waves, but not music. As much as reductionism has its uses (it, for example, is of fundamental importance to help us develop new pharmaceutical treatments for mental illness), it has too many limits to allow us to answer our biggest questions. As the novelist Richard Powers wrote, “If we knew the world only through the synapse, how would we know the synapse?”
The question is how neuroscience can go beyond reductionism. Science legitimately adheres to a rigid methodology, based on experimental data and verification possibilities, but this method could benefit from a further series of inputs. For example, artists have studied the world of experience for centuries. They describe the mind from the inside, expressing first-person perspective in prose, poetry and drawing. Although an artistic work naturally cannot replace the scientific experiment, the artist can however help scientists to better understand what they are looking for. Before things are sectioned, the artist can help understand how they work together.
Virginia Woolf, for example, stated that the novelist’s job is to “examine for a moment a normal mind on a normal day … [describing] the pattern, apparently disconnected and inconsistent, that consciousness follows in every vision or incident.”
In other words, she wanted to describe the mind from within, to transpose the details of our psychological experience into prose. This is the reason why his novels have endured: because they are true, because they manage to grasp a layer of reality that reductionism cannot grasp. As Noam Chomsky said, “It is quite possible, extraordinarily probable, one might assume, that we will have much more to learn about life and personality than from novels than from scientific psychology.” In this sense, art represents an incredibly rich dataset , which provides valuable support for blind neuroscience.
Neuroscience is currently trying to go beyond reductionism. The Blue Brain project, for example, collaboration between the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland and IBM, is working on building a carefully biological brain model that can be used to simulate the experience on a supercomputer. Henry Markram, creator of the project, recently told me that he was convinced that “reductionism reached its climax 5 years ago.” While Markram adds that the reductionist program is not complete, (he claims that we still ignore much of the brain), he tries to solve a difficult problem, which is to understand how all these cell details are connected to each other. “The Blue Brain project,” he says, “intends to show everything to people.” In other words, Markram intends to listen to music.
One day, we will turn back to look at the history of neuroscience and understand that reductionism was nothing more than the initial stage. Every year, tens of thousands of specialized neuroscience journals are published in scientific journals. The field is presented to numerous new acronyms, trails and proteins. However, at some point, all these details begin to have diminishing returns. After all, the real paradox of the brain is because it looks much more like the sum of its parts. How does Technicolor cinema of consciousness become our gray matter? What is it that transforms brain water into wine of the mind? Where does the self come from?
Reductionism is unable to answer these questions. According to neuroscience, our head contains 100 billion electric cells, but none of them are ourselves, they know us or take care of us. We don’t exist. We are simply an elaborate cognitive illusion, an “epiphenomenon” of the cortex. Our mystery is disproved.
Of course, this scientific solution is not very satisfactory. It limits neuroscience to a perfect abstraction, unable to reduce the only reality that we will ever know. Unless our science goes beyond reductionism, it will be increasingly distant. The wonder of the human brain is that it can be described in various ways: We are what dreams are made of, but we are just stuff. What we need is a science that can encompass both sides of our being.
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