October 12th, 2012 Paul Kiritsis
The Human Brain
One of the most critical issues in science today pertains to the relationship of the brain to the mind. Is the mind merely a functional by-product of the brain’s evolution or is the mind, that rich polygonal stream of mental life known as self-awareness or self-consciousness, a disembodied entity that appropriates the comprehensive neural systems of the cerebral cortex to express itself? How are the two actually linked? What is the exact nature of their relationship?
As with most universal mysteries, there appears to be two very viable perspectives. The first is an exponent of the modern scientific movement of evolutionary psychology and falls under the jurisdiction of neuroscience, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that straddles biology and psychology and studies the neural basis of human behaviour and cognition. Its basic proposition is that the mind is merely a functional asset of the brain, one that cannot be disengaged from the physical body or continue to exist as a nonmaterial and disembodied entity after the latter’s death. In radical contradistinction to this is an esoteric and mystical view which sees the mind-brain relationship exemplified in the link between electricity and its generators. From this particular perspective, mind is equated with electricity and the brain with its generators: the mind can utilize the brain as an instrument to manifest and conduct itself in the phenomenal world in the manner that generators store, facilitate and transmit the flow of electric charges. The metaphysical angle might also be metaphorically descried by the nature of relations between computer hardware and software: computer systems can read and play digitally stored data on a mini-disk or other software apparatus but cannot spontaneously autogenerate the foreign data of their own accord. Deductive reasoning tells us that only one of the aforementioned two can be in the right. Which one is it?
Questions of this scale and type aren’t anything new. In fact, if we adhered to the frequently parroted adage that “there is nothing new under the sun” we would automatically see that the inexplicable connection between the mind and the brain has troubled some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known. It is an enigmatic debate that has gone on unwaveringly and unceasingly for time immemorial; it has diffused across centuries and disciplines, always dressing itself in cultural and socio-political colours appropriate for the hermeneutical and interpretative lenses made available at any one time and always making itself comprehendible through that other great battle, the one between theological and mechanistic keystones through which reality might be better objectified and understood. Before the Iron Age, when religious and spiritual experience was an indivisible part of life and as crucial to corporeal survival as what more tangible and mundane agricultural activities like planting and sowing corn was, contemplation of the “mind” was intimately bound up with the celestial deities which were thought to order and control the events on the earth as well as with the hope for immortality.
In ancient Egypt the psychosocial construct that comes closest to our contemporary notion of mind is the ba, a concept best construed as the intangible and non-physical aspects of being that comprise personality and account for individual differences in our consensus reality. Conceptualized as a theriomorphic creature with the head of a human and the body of a bird, the ba was theorized to survive bodily death and its highest function enabled the deceased uninhibited movement in the Afterlife. By juxtaposing the ancient Egyptian conception of the ba and our modern conception of mind, it becomes patent that for our primeval ancestors the seat of the mind (or soul) was the heart. If we can recall that morality or conscience is the progeny of the conscious mind, then it shouldn’t come as any big shock that physical possession of a vessel perceived to encompass it was deemed mandatory if the deceased wished to reach the Hall of Double Maat where he or she would be judged before the chthonic Osiris and his entourage. Hence a requirement of continued subsistence beyond death was the preservation of the heart, the alleged seat of the mind (or soul). This spiritual belief was reflected and vindicated by elaborate funerary formalities such as those that forcibly removed all viscera from the physical body save for the heart during the mummification process. There was a strange but intuitive rationalism to so-called ‘primitive’ theories and practices: that existence or subsistence cannot be without a conscious mind.
Little changed with respect to the localization of mind (or soul) until about the late seventh and sixth centuries bce when the Ionian pre-Socratics arrived on the world scene. This was a time of great scientific progress, particularly with respect to cosmogonic interrogations addressing the primordial substance (or materia prima) of which the entire world had hypothetically been hewn from along with the anatomical composition of matter. Great philosophers like Thales (c. 630-546bce), Anaximander of Miletos (c.610-546bce), Anaximenes (584-28bce), Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475bce) and a great many others all entertained creative and innovative theoretical underpinnings that tentatively represent a protoscientific view of life, but it appears that none strayed too far from psychospiritual conventions imported from primordial lands like Egypt and Mesopotamia. Indeed, what the ancient Egyptians had started by postulating that the mind (or soul) was to be found in the heart was dutifully adopted by Empedocles of Acragas (ca. 490-430bce) who sought to conventionalize the belief by parading it under more scientific jargon and eventually christening it “cardiovascular theory”. Just like his predecessors, Empedocles could not distance himself from the dogged fantasy that the mind (called nous by the Greeks) infused the heart and circulating blood. The first thinker that was audacious, dauntless, and adroit enough to depart from this misperception was the natural philosopher Alcmaeon of Croton (c. 500bce). Musing over all the possibilities Alcmaeon reasoned that mental processes must occur in the brain, a judicious observation that henceforward became known as the “encephalic theory”. These two radically opposed viewpoints, the cardiovascular and the encephalic, formed the basis of a fervent and controversial debate that ended when English physician William Harvey (1578–1657) systematically defined the properties and circulation of blood pumped by the heart to the peripheries of the human body.
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