Like a personal computer, science needs a Recycle Bin for ideas that didn’t work out as planned. In this bin would go commuter trains riding on frictionless rails using superconductivity, interferon (the last AIDS vaccine), and most genetic therapies. These failed promises share one thing in common: they looked like the wave of the future but then reality proved too complex to fit the simple model that was being offered.The next thing to go into the Recycle Bin in might be focus on the brain. We are living in a golden age of brain research, thanks largely to vast improvements in brain scans. Now that functional MRIs can give snapshots of the brain in real time, researchers can see specific areas of the brain light up, indicating increased activity. On the other hand, dark spots in the brain indicate minimal activity or none at all. Thus we arrive at those familiar maps that compare a normal brain with one that has deviated from the norm. This is obviously a great boon where disease is concerned. Doctors can see precisely where epilepsy or Parkinsonism or a brain tumor has created damage, and with this knowledge new drugs and more precise surgery can target the problem.
But then overreach crept in. We are shown brain scans of repeat felons with pointers to the defective areas of their brains. The same holds for Buddhist monks, only in their case, brain activity is heightened and improved, especially in the prefrontal lobes associated with compassion. By now there is no condition, good or bad, that hasn’t been linked to a brain pattern that either “proves” that there is a link between the brain and a certain behavior or exhibits the “cause” of a certain trait. The whole assumption, shared by 99% of neuroscientists, is that we are our brains.
In this scheme, the brain is in charge, having evolved to control certain fixed behaviors. Why do men see other men as rivals for a desirable woman? Why do people seek God? Why does snacking in front of the TV become a habit? We are flooded with articles and books reinforcing the same assumption: the brain is using you, not the other way around. Yet it’s clear that a faulty premise is leading to gross overreach.
The flaws in current reasoning can be summarized with devastating force:
1. Brain activity isn’t the same as thinking, feeling, or seeing.
2. No one has remotely shown how molecules acquire the qualities of the mind.
3. It is impossible to construct a theory of the mind based on material objects that somehow became conscious.
4. When the brain lights up, its activity is like a radio lighting up when music is played. It is an obvious fallacy to say that the radio composed the music. What is being viewed is only a physical correlation, not a cause.
It’s very good news that you are not your brain, because when mind finds its true power, the result is healing, inspiration, insight, self-awareness, discovery, curiosity, and quantum leaps in personal growth. The brain is totally incapable of such things. After all, if it is a hard-wired machine, there is no room for sudden leaps and renewed inspiration. The machine simply does what it does. A depressed brain can no more heal itself than a car can suddenly decide to fly. Right now the golden age of brain research is brilliantly decoding neural circuitry, and thanks to neuroplasticity, we know that the brain’s neural pathways can be changed. The marvels of brain activity grow more astonishing every day. Yet in our astonishment it would be a grave mistake, and a disservice to our humanity, to forget that the real glory of human existence is the mind, not the brain that serves it.