essay

Because no field is an island

Dualism: it’s the naughtiest of naughty words in neuroscience. Claiming that the mind and brain are two separate things, dualism has got a bad rep as a rotten instinctual belief — a belief neuroscience rips apart daily. Thanks to fMRI machines and all manner of philosophical arguments, we now have plenty evidence to wave around as proof that the mind is what the brain creates, end of story.

And yet — the rotten dualist instinct presses on, even for scientists. No one can avoid talking about the mind as if it’s a distinct entity, because we as humans have been reflecting upon the thoughts, emotions and other hallmarks of mental life for centuries before neuroscience blossomed as a field. Nowadays the brain might be the province of neuroscience, but the mind has long required a broader range of disciplines to help decode it, including the arts and social sciences.

With that in mind, this blog aims to probe mind/brain issues in a way that, where appropriate, embraces our dualist instincts. This isn’t because separating the mind from the brain is scientifically accurate. Rather, it’s because dualism frequently provides a useful way of talking about things. It helps remind us that the human experiences so widely studied in neuroscience and psychology will never be fully captured by physical descriptions of the brain.

Sure, neuroscientists will go on to describe increasingly specific brain states that correspond with distinct lived experiences. But even as that happens, we will continue to recognize phenomena like depression as descriptions of the way people feel, often affected by external circumstances. fMRI can’t tell the story of something like chronic depression on its own. We also need experts on conditions like poverty or loneliness. And probably some Sylvia Plath.

So! this blog and I are going to take on all things mind and brain with healthy dips into fields outside “hard science,” and many eyes on the popular media. After all, neuroscience is all the rage these days. With the field being so trendy, it’s important to distinguish all the truly great work being done by neuroscientists and their collaborators from the nonsense.

And now if you’re wondering why on earth I might be credible on these topics, check the about page. Then feel free to object, question, and above all, comment.


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