Science; "Brain = Behavior"

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the Biology 202 at Bryn Mawr College. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. You're welcome to post here any thoughts that have arisen during the course this week (and to respond to thoughts others have posted).

Among the questions worth thinking about this week are the ideas of loopy science, of science as story, and the notion that "brain = behavior". Are these good summaries of observations? good stories? What observations do they not incorporate? What new questions do they raise?

Julianne Rieders's picture

No Mind, No God?

As humans, most would like to emphasize the agency of the mind over a series of chemical processes, and while I agree that the mind is often over estimated, I don't think it can be discarded. That we can not find truth through science, that it must be pursued through other fields closely associated with a mind like literature or history, is evidence enough that the mind is essential to human existence and progress. Crick's view implies to me that humans are more so machines, complex machines, but still ultimately without agency. My reason for believing in this duality is not scientific, it can not be tested or disproved although it may be observed (which is actually sounding closer to Prof Grobstein's definition of science)...

Caroline Feldman's picture

Brain and Behavior = unclear?

In class, I voted in favor of Dickinson’s view on the story about brain and behavior, but after thinking about it, I am now “on the fence”. I have been taught in the past that the brain was made up of an enormous number of individual cells, called neurons, and that chains of neurons led out of the brain and into the rest of the body, ultimately ending up in my muscles and thereby causing the body to move about and exhibit behavior. But that knowledge doesn’t remove the mystery of how my will – my thoughts – can result in physical actions. And there is a converse side to this problem: why should physical events – for example, light striking my eyes – result in thoughts, feelings, and perceptions? After all, most physical events – like, say, knocking something over – don’t result in any such thing. A binder knocked off of a desk (presumably) doesn’t have any awareness of hitting the floor. So why doesn’t light simply enter the eyes, travel to the brain, go through all kinds of complex processing, and emerge as behavior, without there being any experience, awareness, or consciousness accompanying these events? Why is there awareness, consciousness, experience, subjectivity in the world, rather than merely behavior? Subjectivity seems oddly gratuitous. It certainly seems that, if physics is a complete description of reality, as scientists believe, behavior alone would be the expected result of physical causes. Yet behavior alone does not fully describe us. There is an inwardness to our existence, which is consciousness. The question as to how consciousness arises from the activity of the brain is one part of our question. The other part is whether consciousness can really cause things to happen – and this question is really identical to the question as to whether we have what is commonly called "free will" – and, if it does, how does it contrive to produce effects in physical things like neurons? Taken together, these two questions constitute the mind-body problem. Consciousness seems like literal magic in a world that science describes as devoid of magic. How are we to account for it in a way that is consistent with what we know about the world?
EB Ver Hoeve's picture

What's on your mind?

Richie Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison takes the mind seriously. After many years of using electrophysiology and functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure patterns of electrical impulses and brain functioning in the study of emotional development, he turned his attention to studying the relationship between the mind and the brain, and he hypothesized that by controlling our minds we can actually change the structure of our brains. “Our brains are dynamic, alive, shifting, and with effort and input, can be pushed in the direction we choose” (Davidson, 2007).

For the past few years, Davidson has worked in collaboration with Tibetan monks (including the Dalai Lama) to study the impact of mental exercise during meditation on functional and structural changes in the human brain. Meditation is used to quiet the mind. Davidson has been able to demonstrate that when experienced monks meditate, there is an initial increase in activity in their prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain most involved in paying attention, but after a short while, as their concentration requires less effort, these activity levels return to baseline.

In class today, we were perhaps too quick to accept Crick’s theory. Where were the observations? Were we more accepting of this position because we rely so heavily on drugs? Because we see great distances between spirituality and scientific “reality?”
Davidson’s research has not been universally accepted. Like Davidson, I am very interested in exploring meditation and mind control. He may not yet have discovered “the mind” but his research demonstrating how intensive training of the mind can change brain function (and possibly structure) is certainly intriguing.
Jen Benson's picture

This is so interesting!

This is so interesting! Other research has also convinced me that conscious effort of the mind can alter the physical reality of our bodies...for example when women believe they are pregnant and begin to experience symptoms of pregnancy (such as morning sickness and weight gain) and the effectiveness of placebos (when people believe they are receiving a drug and then experience the expected effect of that drug when they actually didn’t take it). Both the experience of pregnancy and of taking a drug rely on brain functioning to materialize, providing examples of when the “mind” actually impacts the brain, just as the example cited by EB above. The idea that these completely abstract and subjective understandings of reality can impact brain functioning seems to question the idea that the brain is the sole entity influencing behavior.

I also resist the idea that the brain equals behavior because of my, I believe innate, need to feel that I have free will. One paradigm that bothers me in psychology is the nature/nurture debate that considers both biological and environmental factors arising in behavior and identity, a model that does not take into account what an individual chooses to do. I would like to think that somebody genetically identical to me who has lived exactly the same life, might at various junctures, due to some aspects of identity unrelated to biology or environment, make different choices than myself. Considering behaviors with only these variables in mind calls into question whether or not I can be held truly accountable for my actions (in the religious sense). I would like to think that I am who I am, for better or worse, largely due to my own conscious choices and not merely the result of my genetics and experiences. Perhaps this is because I was raised Roman Catholic and Quaker and believe that I should be held accountable for all my actions. Perhaps I am resisting the most rational and parsimonious explanation because it threatens the existence of a soul. At the same time, I am reminded of what we talked about in class, and a quote by Samuel Butler:

“Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises”

Science is indeed a mode of thinking and drawing conclusions that each human being engages in from the time they are infants. Everyone tries to make sense of their environment and that necessarily entails trying to draw conclusions so as to make somewhat helpful predictions about future events as well as to negotiate ones appropriate place in an environment. This quote also acknowledges that there can be no truth acquired from these investigations. Some reasons for why these premises would be insufficient could be the fact that the brain mediates all subjective experiences of reality. We cannot know definitively that something is true because that is only what our brain tells us. Some of you may have seen a movie called Waking Life, thus titled because it refers to the state of the mind in dream sleep. The movie (among many other interesting topics) explores the possibility of being in a state other than wakefulness and believing oneself to be living daily life…a premise I know has been explored in other media but worth considering all the same as it reminds of the overarching domain of the brain over all experience and reality.

Within the context of science as an evolving story, the brain=behavior model does seem well-supported from observations also coming from science. I have knowledge and beliefs about the soul and the mind and the brain that all impact my functioning through brain behaviors. So basically I am still on the fence about this topic. I find Dickinson’s explanation more likely even if it violates my belief in the mind that rests partially on sentimentality (which is itself an experience mediated by the brain). I also have not learned much about the brain so feel my opinions are thus far insufficiently justified…

Sorry this is so long...

Margaux Kearney's picture

Brain and Mind

People can have a brain without a mind. However, people cannot have a mind without a brain. With respect to people in comas, they have a brain, but do they have a mind? Is mind connected to consciousness? What is consciousness?

Julianne's picture


how do we know they don't have a mind, how do you define mind, in your opinion?

Margaux Kearney's picture


This is just a question that popped into my head after Thursday's class. I don't really have a definite definition of what I consider the mind to be, but when people say "are you out of your mind?" does that mean that they have lost all sense of reason. People in a coma have a brain, but live in a vegetative state. Can they think rationally? Is the ability to reason what differentiates us from animals? I hope this helps!

Molly Pieri's picture

Technical minutia, Aristotle, and emergent phenomena...

So, I hate to be a stickler about these things (okay, that's not true, I love it...) a coma is technically a separate medical condition from a vegitative state. PVS patients have no discernable cerebral activity (and thus, no level of consciousness). Coma patients, on the other hand, display a wide range of levels of conciousness. To be prescise, we should probably only be speaking of individuals in permanent vegitative states for the purposes of this arguement...

Any way, on to the substantive comments... Descartes sort of gave birth to the idea of a mind as a non-physical entity separate from the body. He argues that he knows the mind and body must be of two distinct types, because while the body can be put assunder, the mind is always and essentially individisible. (But even Descartes, touted to be the Granddaddy of mind-body dualism says that the mind's existance within the body must not be as "a sailor is within a ship", rather a much more intimate and primary relationship must exist between the two) But before Descartes came along and suggested a metaphyscal conception of the soul or mind, the generally accepted idea of 'spirit' was the one put forth by Aristotle (whose ideas I haven't actually read first hand, so if I mess this up, some one please correct me...)

Aristotle held that the soul (psyche?) was co-extensive with the body, and a very principle of the body's being alive. The idea of a physical soul was largely abandoned in a post-decartesian world, but it offers some very interesting implications for the "problem" of mind-body dualism/unity. So while modern conceptions put the 'mind' as a non-spaitially extended phenomena not present in vegetative brains, a more ancient (but not necessarily worse) model of the 'mind' could allow the vegetative body to have a soul.... just and idea of play around with.

However, if we decide we don't like Aristotle's ideas (and let's face it, the man was wrong about a lot in life, there's no garuntee that his ideas on the soul are any more accurate than his ideas on physics...) I really like Caitin Jeschke's idea (listed a few posts down) of the mind as an emergent property. I wrote a term paper for my Logic & Language course on the implications of mind-body unity and dualism on medical ethics, and that idea of an emergent phenomenon was very similar to the conclusion I came to in my person attempt to rectify the paradox.

Roughly summarized, I suppose my idea could be stated that a Person (Caitlin's "emergent mind") consists of the synthesis of a non-physical soul with a spacially extended body. The logical paradox, of course, is that we cannot have the unity of two things which reside in different logical categories (the body is a physical thing, like rocks, trees, etc. while the mind is of a non-physical thing, like 7, the Pythagorean Theorum or the concept of Color) But surely we have come across paradoxes of this sort before... physics now acknowledges the unity of space-time: a concept which, before Einstein, would have been considered ridiculous. Of course, in every day normal circumstances, we can treat time and space as separate. Just like we can normally treat physical and non-physical things as separate. However, what if a living person is something akin to traveling at relativistic speeds? All of a sudden, space and time cannot be considered in isolation from one another, just as in a living person, we cannot completely separate mind and body (brain)....

I suppose it's with this rather un-organized non-question specific answer I must leave, because it's late and I'm tired. I hope that my rambling hasn't been too confusing, and that there aren't too many spelling errors, but this blog-post-window-box-thingy has no spell check, so if there are, please forgive me.



Serendip Visitor's picture

Paradox as generative(/destructive)

You've delved into the depths and hit paradox, (hopefully started laughing), and as such, I believe you have gotten it the "least wrong".
Which is to say that paradox is what ultimately unites.
It creates the ability for action, change, time, motion, forms, pattern, judgement, separation; from stillness, oneness, wholeness, chaos, void, emptiness.

And so it unites all of these ideas (in division).
Which makes everybody in this thread right (WRONG!). ; D
All beautiful contributions to the colorful fractal of conscious self-expression.

We're IT, observing itself, from different perspectives in the structure of space-time.
As such, the alternative paradigm of awareness/Mind being the most primary thing is precisely what allows us to discover that it is NOT. But that instead a never-ending scientific inquiry inspired by the awe we feel can keep turning up new information, new detail in every corner we zoom in on, never complete. Is the Question the Thing?

Is the answer to this question No?
(of course not! ; )

Margaux Kearney's picture

Which story fits for brain=behavior?

For as long as I can remember, I have always considered the brain a mysterious and complex piece of matter. Neurons (which include dendrites, axons, cell bodies) receive and send neural impulses and trigger organisms' to react a certain way (their behavior).  However, I have been found guilty of believing what scientists around me consider to be the "truth." Never have I asked to see a summary of their observations! With this in mind, I would be really interested to become familiar with observations that prove why Descartes' story could be correct.  What determines how we behave? Is it biological aspects that determines how our brain functions or is it vice versa?

Chris's picture

Descartes was a dualist,

Descartes was a dualist, which means he thought that the brain was not sole responsible for conscious experience. Dualist views today have evolved and hold within the "Hard Problem of Consciousness" which you will find definition easily on the net. To summarize, the HPC says that information only cannot account for human experience hence that materialism is false. To do this, it refers to a few experiments that cannot be solved by materialism except by discarding conscious experience altogether or assuming that it cannot be different from information processing, which I find deeply unsatisfying. However, the dualist approach also has problems because the interaction between brain and whatever else consciousness would be made of is unknown. Alternatives to these theories have evolved, like "quantum consciousness" which would have consciousness being a property of quantum systems (collapse of the wave function), which kind of implies panpsychism where all matter is conscious. These theories and dualism I find more satisfying than materialism. But today's scientist have based most of their career within the assumption that these theories were at best a waste of time or not worth investigating by denying HPC. However, we have always known that scientists are not more open-minded than any other people. This is intelligently exposed by Thomas Kuhn in the structure of scientific revolutions.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Primacy of Consciousness

What a great post, from three years ago. This gets right at the heart of what allows everything to be possible. Peter Russel's video "The Primacy of Consciousness" touches on all these ideas, from Kuhn to the HPC to quantum consciousness and concludes that an alternative meta-paradigm will eventually surface stating consciousness/light is in fact the primary action of reality, which then allows forms to arise and grow and emerge with increasing complexity, until we get to the human brain (and perhaps other observers possibly more advanced in ways we can't imagine, though I think imagining here is the point ; ), able to self-reflect upon the whole thing.

Anyway, in the same sense that Newtonian physics plays a useful role at the macro scale, but breaks down at quantum levels, requiring a new paradigm to explain both, while still allowing us to use Newton's laws in every day life; just so does this idea now allow for explanations of all the bizarre paranormal phenomena described while still letting us live in a solid world.

Tremendous, the idea of ideas (of ideas...)

Paul Grobstein's picture

Science: Truth and Spirit

Appreciate the help in getting an important point clear in class today. There may indeed be such a thing as Truth, but if so it has to be found through some process other than science. Science, as per discussion today (and elsewhere) is not capable of determining Truth. It is limited to providing effective summaries of existing observations that in turn motivate new observations.

It is worth adding that science is equally limited in its ability to prove the non-existence of either "mind" or "spirit" as entities independent of the brain. What it might do is to provide alternative ways of accounting for the observations that are being summarized by dualistic stories that use either of those terms.