Picking Brains

Understanding the human brain

At least two interpretations of the task ‘understanding the brain’ are available. Firstly, one can seek an understanding of the brain as an object – a purely anatomical undertaking. Secondly, one can seek an understanding of the brain as somehow correlating with consciousness (Gamez, 2014; Place, 1956; Smart, 1959). Each task would seem a complex undertaking, with its own rewards. The tasks could also be undertaken together. This would be especially appealing if an internalist account of consciousness was presupposed, since the brain would instantiate consciousness and so its anatomical structures somehow realise consciousness.

If an understanding of the brain as an object is sought, without reference to consciousness, the question might be asked, ‘why the human brain?’ Other brains exist, other human organs are complex and fascinating; other sites of neuronal activity are available.[1] It seems quite arbitrary to fix on the task of understanding the human brain without reference to its apparently most striking feature – its role in consciousness. But it seems altogether coy to fix on the task of understanding the human brain as an object, voice no interest in its role in conscious phenomena, yet have ambitions to intervene therapeutically in the conscious phenomena of the brain in treating psychiatric disorders.

Brain research that interests itself in providing inputs to psychiatric treatments would seem to have to be interested in consciousness in some way. It is therefore vital to explore this so that this kind of work can be properly understood. The alternative is to become technically very advanced with models, physiologies and modes of representing the brain, but to remain conceptually unsophisticated.

Understanding diseases of the brain

The relations between diseases of the brain and psychiatric disorders [2] seem unclear. This is why research in this area is undertaken in the first place. To make the claim that a disorder is real and treatable is to tacitly suggest a view on what order is. In the case of psychiatric disorder, ‘order’ might be provided by a ‘normal’ set of brain functions. If there is a limit to this approach, it comes here in the form of unclarity over the relations among the physical objects such as neurons, axons, dendrites, ion-channels and whole brains, and the (disordered?) conscious phenomenaIt isn’t that projects such as these don’t have theories of consciousness at work in the extraction of data, interpretation of experiment, and explanation of results. It is that the theories are present, but tacit and so inform these aspects of research obscurely.

To take the internalist / externalist dichotomy from above, the position is still neutral between each side. For an internalist conception of consciousness, brain interventions might be necessary and sufficient for consciousness-changing effects. For the externalist, they may be necessary or sufficient, but perhaps not both. That’s to say that for the externalist, a brain intervention may or may not create, subserve, prompt or otherwise affect conscious phenomena – so too for any change in the conscious being or her environment more generally.

Environmental context in general, the specific contexts of experiment, are important in helping to determine outcomes in interesting ways. For instance, in the 1960s it was noted that chemical interventions in humans beings produces effects underdetermined by the physical facts: administering adrenaline to patients produced euphoria or anger depending upon the cognitive state of the experimental participant.[3]

The experimental data are neutral between elation and anger in Schachter and Singer, the overall outcome being dependent upon an essentially intentional factor. Neither psychological nor physiological factors alone can provide a prediction of the outcome. Similarly, in brain research linked to conscious phenomena the empirical data are neutral between (at least) the two minimal alternative views of consciousness presented so far. This can be illustrated with reference to divergent arguments based on the same data.

From Crick and Koch (1990) it is hypothesised that a key element in understanding consciousness in human beings at least comes from the synchronous oscillations of the brain during visual stimulation. These occur in the 40-70Hz range during visual experience and are held to be explanatory of the binding of visual stimulations into a visual experience. In looking at synchrony as key for consciousness, Thompson and Varela (2001:418) argue for a “two-way or reciprocal relationship between embodied conscious states and local neuronal activity” based on analysis of further empirical data about synchrony in brain activity. The connectedness with the environment, the responsiveness of neuronal activity to it, that is witnessed in brain activity prompt the conclusion that the environment and consciousness are seamlessly intertwined. Synchronic brain activity relies upon an organism’s situation in terms of its own body, the dynamic internal state in which it finds itself, and the environment including other organisms that it is placed in. On the other hand, relying upon similar data, Clark (2009:22) concludes that

“…the external environment may well matter insofar as it causally drives the neural systems, but the key effects that enable and explain the quality of the felt experience may be occurring at time-scales that are only possible within the neural apparatus itself.”

Based in the same data concerning the character of reactivity with the environment and synchrony in the brain, the opposite conclusion is reached: only an internalist account of consciousness could explain the speed at which the brain activity occurs for Clark here. The seamlessness of any relation still could not provide the necessary proximities for the time-scales observable.

Which account, internalist or externalist, should we choose to account for conscious experience here? Given these interpretations of the data, it seems an open question. In the first instance, the complex dynamism of an organism’s embeddedness in an environment prompts the conclusion that conscious experience must be thought of as extending beyond the confines of the head. In the second, though, the detail of the conscious experience are held to prompt the conclusion that it can only by explained as an internalist phenomenon.

One tempting answer might be to say that science is a self-righting process and so perhaps this seeming dichotomy will be superseded by a better theory in time. Whether this answer would produce optimism or pessimism may depend, recalling Schachter and Singer, on prior dispositions and cognitive states.

The need for interpretation is clear. The data do not neutrally inform an objective conclusion. They cannot pronounce once and for all upon the significance of an apparent finding. The work of assimilating, judging and making sense of data comes in a context of justification itself not necessarily apparent to the researcher. For instance, the word ‘normal’ is used above to describe a set of reference brain states. While this word has a relatively pristine statistical sense (though this isn’t a reason to pause scrutiny) there is a concomitant and nakedly judgmental sense of the same word – “Be normal!” How to disentangle in the mind, at the lab bench, which is used when?

[1] Costa, M, Brookes, S J H, Hennig, G W, “Anatomy and physiology of the enteric nervous system”, Gut 2000;47:suppl 4 iv15-iv19 doi:10.1136/gut.47.suppl_4.iv15

[2] The political content of mental illness claims should not be ignored: from ‘hysteria’ and beyond, ascription of mental health issues have tracked uncannily the political interests of powerful groups.

[3] Schachter, Stanley; Singer, Jerome Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, Vol 69(5), Sep 1962, 379-399. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0046234That

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