Will cognitive neuroscience give us clues about the old duality of the brain and the mind?

Ever since 1641, when French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes pronounced that the mind and the body were two distinct entities, the mind has been considered responsible for consciousness and self-awareness and the brain has been believed to be, among other things, the seat of human intelligence. This ‘Cartesian dualism', as it is referred to, laid the grounds for the eventual emergence of two distinct medical disciplines, one involved with the brain and the other with human behaviour — neurology and psychiatry respectively — although the latter can be said to have had truly scientific beginnings only around the middle of the 19th century or thereabouts. Psychiatrists therefore, started taking care of ‘diseases of the mind', concentrating primarily on those problems and issues related to the area of human behaviour while neurologists were primarily concerned with the management of problems produced by disorders of the brain, the spinal cord and nerves.

There has always been an interface between the two disciplines which psychiatrists have referred to as ‘organic psychiatry' (psychiatric illnesses produced by demonstrable disorders in the brain) and neurologists identify as ‘behavioural neurology' (brain syndromes presenting with altered behaviour as their chief symptom), thereby laying the foundation for territorial issues between the two medical disciplines. However, greater interest over the last few decades in what are generally referred to as the ‘higher functions' of the brain (like thought, memory, learning, perceptions, attention, social behaviour, mood and the like) saw the development of the discipline of ‘cognitive neuroscience' which today is the recipient of increasingly larger research funding since it's expected to provide a clearer understanding of the functioning of the human brain. In the process, one hopes, conclusive answers on whether the brain and the mind are one and the same, will emerge.

Why we need to know

Why, you may ask, is it necessary to know this? Why should we not just accept consciousness and self-awareness as givens and stop worrying about where precisely they are seated or about where precisely the human mind is located? For one important reason, I would imagine. We spend a lot of our time and energy in trying to better ourselves and get on the personal development track. This we do, by trying to understand our patterns of behaviour, our personality types and so forth, with the object of minimising our shortcomings and maximising our strengths. Since there are so many lacunae in our understanding of what is actually happening inside the human mind, it becomes difficult to know specifically what we need to do to achieve this. As a result, we have a plethora of theories and remedial interventions, ranging from the prosaic to the esoteric, that we can choose from, and often we need to do this without compelling enough data to support our choice. Also, if indeed we are able to pin-point the exact locations in the brain that determine gender differences in behaviour and are able to delineate which precise neurons need to be stimulated to ensure a greater acceptance of these differences, I daresay Mars and Venus can comfortably coexist on Earth.

In the past, the principal tool of cognitive neuroscience research was the study of brain disease that presented with symptoms of disturbed higher functions and correlating them with post-mortem findings. With the advent of sophisticated imaging techniques of the brain, researchers don't have to wait for autopsy findings to arrive at their conclusions, as a result of which much more research in these fields takes place today. There are also some researchers who devise highly innovative experiments to come to their conclusions. And judging by the fact that well-written books on the subject, like those by Oliver Sacks and V.S. Ramachandran among others, are consistently on best-seller lists, it's obvious that more and more people want to know whether they need to mind their brains or train their minds in order to move forward.

Tentative answers

I don't intend to summarise the state of the art here, for that would, aside of being a foolhardy thing to attempt, require considerable more space than a shrinking universe could provide. However, if one looks at the direction that cognitive neuroscience research is taking, it would appear that many mental phenomena can be demonstrably associated with certain distinctive parts of the brain, individual variations notwithstanding. Although in the past, most research understanding was derived from disease or dysfunction of the human brain, today cognitive laboratories are in a position to map brain activity in a variety of situations — ranging from performing simple tasks to more complex ones like solving mathematical problems or having a row with a loved one. Of course, most research findings in the area of human relationships are still equivocal, but I find it promising that attention is being paid to this aspect of human behaviour, for, I feel that a lot about the human brain can be understood by studying human social relationships given how nuanced these can be.

Whether technology can be the final arbiter of the brain-mind debate is in itself debatable. So, until more concrete data emerges, I will assume that psychiatry and neurology will remain distinctive disciplines and that the exact location of the mind remains delightfully fuzzy. And where does the soul figure in all of this? I'm not even going there.

E-mail: vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com