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Updated: June 14, 2012 10:10 IST

Who am I? my brain or my mind?

Prof. K. Ganapathy
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You become a Mother Teresa or Bin Laden because of your pre-determined genetic profile and the way your brain is wired. File Photo: Special Arrangement
You become a Mother Teresa or Bin Laden because of your pre-determined genetic profile and the way your brain is wired. File Photo: Special Arrangement

“But thatha (grandfather in Tamil), you must punish my brain, not me,” responded my eight-year-old grandson, on being reprimanded for a socially unacceptable behaviour. A few weeks earlier, I had explained to him, the intricacies of brain cartography and how today, we can “localise” and explain the many facets of behaviour. Out of the mouths of babes, comes the truth. Touché – a Frenchman would have remarked.

You become a Mother Teresa or bin Laden because of your pre-determined genetic profile, the way your brain is wired and neurotransmitters jump across synapses. Rapists and hardcore criminals will seek clemency, as sophisticated neuroimaging has revealed functional and even structural ‘aberrations' in the brain. Jumping out of your jeans lies in your genes! It is the hippocampus in my brain which is responsible for my behaviour, not me!

Worldwide, for decades the judiciary has accepted the principle of mens-rea — the act does not make a person guilty, unless the mind is also guilty. What is the mind? Where is the mind? Ever since Homo sapiens became a biped and stopped swinging from tree to tree, he has often introspected on “Who am I.” Great thinkers of yesteryear, be it Adi Sankara or Socrates, postulated the existence of the “mind” and the “soul.” Without today's brain mapping tools, René Descartes had enunciated the concept of Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am.

If everything we do is physically caused by our brains, which in turn are a product of our genes and our life experiences, how can we be held responsible for our actions? Sophisticated electrophysiology can pick up electrical activity in nerve cells, even as a thought process is being initiated. Normally, when the thought could lead to an anti-social act, inhibitory impulses ensure that it is aborted. What if my inhibitory cortex is less well-developed — am I responsible for this? Coca-Cola has a team of neurophysiologists working on neuromarketing — studying what exactly happens in the brain, when a desire for a product is kindled. With reverse engineering can they ignite this pathway, so that their return on investment quadruples? Will HR of the future use brain imaging correlates of personality, intelligence, mental health vulnerabilities, attitudes toward ethnic groups, predilection for violent crime as part of their selection process?

If someone picks up someone else's belonging and can't remember, can proof of Alzheimer's disease exonerate him of the alleged crime? In the next decade, can sophisticated brain mapping findings be invoked, as mitigating circumstances to explain aberrant behaviour? How does society “punish” my abnormal neurotransmitter levels, the aberrant tracts and circuits in my behavioural brain, so elegantly displayed in colour in a fMRI tractogram? Is this the cause or result of my behaviour? Who am I?


Like Google Earth, brain cartographers are mapping areas responsible for concentration, fear, anxiety, perseverance, learning, memory, appetite, pleasure and sex. The hippocampus, a crescent-shaped collection of neurons deep in the brain, is the chief coordinator for memory — the amygdala, an almond size cluster of nerve cells, stores memories of fear; the basal ganglia retain memories of habits and physical skills. Is this me? Is human love, the agony and ecstasy we feel, only an electrical outburst of a circumscribed set of neurons? To explain me (the mind) as the functions of 1300 grams of a semisolid gelatinous mass, a palpable physical entity appears too naïve? Am I just a sum total of hope, despair, genius, dull mediocrity? Am I electrical impulses zapping from one brain cell to another, helped along their way, by a myriad of complex chemicals? How juvenile! Am I not something beyond the merely physical, something ethereal that is closer to a spiritual concept of the soul? How melodramatic! The truth, as all great truths are, though currently evading us, is probably somewhere in between.

Epilogue: “Arvind, you are right, but since I do not know how to punish only the nerve cells responsible for your action, I am reproaching them through you — no games and TV today, and next time don't be a smart alec — you cannot get away with this specious argument!

(The author is a Chennai-based neurosurgeon and telemedicine specialist. Email:

More In: Open Page | Opinion

We live in a deterministic universe, meaning that the engine underlying all the processes we
see all around us, life and non-life, physical and chemical and biological, are the naturalistic
and deterministic laws of physics. But determinism does not imply that things that happen to
us are inevitable. A deterministic world is capable of producing "evitability" says Dan Dennett
in his book Freedom Evolves.
Further many commenters seem to believe that genes control us with levers and we're
simply biological puppets. This theory, called genetic determinism, is false and is a common
misunderstanding of genetics and biology. Every time we have protected sex, we rebel
against our genes which has created our reproductive system so that we have kids and pass
on copies of our genes. As Professor Dawkins says in his book The Selfish Gene,
we(humans) alone can rebel against the tyranny of our genes.

from:  Raamganesh
Posted on: May 9, 2012 at 21:03 IST

@Ashish - Do you really believe that neuro-scientists and philosophers throughout the world who have been researching this problem for so many years since the scientific revolution 300 years ago have never considered the answer offered by the Vedantic school of thought? That in all this time it never occurred to them read a few books on Vedanta? In fact, science has considered not only the vedantic hypothesis of the immaterial 'I', but also other answers offered by other religious traditions, and has rejected them all. The consensus among mainstream scientists now in psychology, neuroscience, philosophy etc. is that the mind, special though it is, is a product of the brain.

from:  Raamganesh
Posted on: May 9, 2012 at 20:53 IST

Same argument was put out by Michael Crichton in Next. A lawyer comes to
a child molester and asks him to do what ever weird thinks he can do.
Thus he wants to prove that the culprit is genetically 'adventurous' and
thus raped an under aged person! This is an interesting thought, but I am not sure I have the answer even after reading the article.

from:  Ramachandra
Posted on: May 8, 2012 at 12:03 IST

Several commenters fault the Professor for not considering a religious or spiritual answer to his question on Free Will. But why should he? Modern science has pretty much converged on the opinion that the mind is the product of the brain and that various concepts of the disembodied supernatural immaterial "soul" espoused by various religions are at best considered as hypotheses lacking any credible evidence. Some people mention quantum physics as proof of vedantic concepts but that's mistaken too and few mainstream physicists will endorse it. People seem to believe that since quantum physics is strange and spooky and that spirituality is strange and spooky, that they must be talking about the same thing. I believe it's mistaken.

from:  Raamganesh
Posted on: May 8, 2012 at 10:35 IST

Indian sages have pondered about these questions since the beginning of civilization. It is sad that modern science has not inherited this great tradition of self-inquiry. As Adi Shankaracharya points out - " I am not the ego, nor the mind, nor the senses. I am pure consciousness - Shivoham". Neuroscience, Quantum Physics and Artificial Intelligence have not been able to answer the hard questions about consciousness. This is when Vedanta comes to the rescue.

from:  Ashish
Posted on: May 8, 2012 at 08:13 IST

It is true that what we do and what we think is all dependent on our genetic make up and our experiences. And those who indulge in anti social acts are probably not able to successfully inhibit such animal instincts that is inherent in us all. And since collective survival is the basic tenet on which a society thrives, such individuals are eliminated from the society through imprisonment etc. And that is exactly what the great thinker Charles Darwin propounded as natural selection where those creatures possessing features that may prove to be a detriment of their survival or the collective survival of their species are deemed as unfit to survive and are eliminated by nature itself.

from:  Joseph Arnold X
Posted on: May 7, 2012 at 23:34 IST

People always need something to be blamed for their mistakes and wrongs, and for their sufferings. First it was fate or nature and he created god or gods and started blaming it. Now after advancements in science and technology he have began to start blaming it on 'genes' or 'brain and its signals'.
The blame game actually make them more vulnerable.

from:  praveen kumar
Posted on: May 7, 2012 at 23:33 IST

This is a serious problem and the author has done a good job in defining the problem. He appears to conclude that there is none. He could be right.

Posted on: May 7, 2012 at 16:37 IST

In the beginning of his write-up, the Doctor says "out of the mouths of the babes, comes the truth" which is a fact because a child 'simply and easily' arrives at the conclusion without too much of processing and that too involving a huge number of neurons and their contributions of pieces of information. Truth is simple. And here the truth Arvind is talking about applies to anybody and everybody. The grandson of the Doctor knows the scientific fact behind his misbehavior but a majority of children in India do not know this fact, so they either quietly accept the punishment or to avoid the pain or to escape the punishment, they activate the unusual parts of the brain by sending unusual pulses. Here, is the beginning of the construction of new neurons that play criminal behavior functions (learning). And in the end, he says, he cannot punish the nerve cells directly so Arvind is punished. Arvind together with all other kids might accept the punishment, but the question is - Is the punishment going to dissolve the function of some neurons that were responsible for the misbehavior? I think, NO. Though the Doctor is talking about the 'me' and the 'mind' of individuals but talking about the punishments meted out to them, I would like to point out that "the output of the neurons depends on input to the neurons". Now, who is responsible for the inputs that output misbehavior? I'm sure, the elders surrounding him. So who should be punished ultimately? We, the elders should share the pain of punishment together with our children. Applying the policy of reasoning by Arvind, how should or would we justify the behavior of learned and well-educated individuals like Utsav Sharma, Dr. Mahapatra and many more whose actions have been a result of some chemical reactions within their brains happening for years. Who should be punished?

from:  Parthiban T R
Posted on: May 7, 2012 at 15:10 IST

Nature AND nurture play a part. More research needs to be done before we are certain this information is 100% factual. The scientific method in action as it were.

from:  Seth
Posted on: May 7, 2012 at 12:30 IST

Mind is the manifestations of thought,perception,emotion, determination, memory and imagination that takes place within the brain. And brain is simply a vessel with lot of electrical circuits fitted in the right place. There is no defect in brain if you are becoming Mother Teresa or Bin Laden ! Brain is just a mechanical thing, its all about your mind which drives your brain and ultimately you to do this. society, circumstances, professional/personal stress or genetic are the sets of factors which adulterates your mind as you grow up. Its ultimately you and your self control (i will prefer to use this instead of self determination) which can resist these adulteration to percolate further. Its only You !! your brain is helpless and your mind is devil..

from:  Manoranjan
Posted on: May 7, 2012 at 11:41 IST

This is where the significance of ancient hindu scriptures lies. All actions of a living being is pre-determined at birth. (through genes). Our scriptures are written with the most scientific basis at the time of zero technologies.

from:  anitha
Posted on: May 7, 2012 at 10:49 IST

All right ! Again the same thing, 'Parallelism' and again it is incomplete and not satisfactory.Here Prof. K. Ganapathy forgets that when we use the word 'Our Brain', it indicates that 'We' are not brains. We are a different object. Brain and Mind are two different things and both are mortal but who experience and use both things is something which is immortal i.e 'I'. Genes affects our behavior and life experience our way of thinking which is inevitable, but the question is 'who is affected' ? My Brain, My mind or ME ! If 'ME' then this is imbecility to say that my genes decide what kind of person I will become.

from:  Mahender Soni
Posted on: May 7, 2012 at 10:12 IST

Thanks to you sir for a thought-provoking article.I agree upon your idea that mind is the one responsible for all our activities and actions.then why punish the physical body?But I believe it is not completely correct as our mindset is a consequence of our past experiences and the we received and reacted towards them.Our childhood plays a major role in determining our behaviour.Our actions are imprinted in our nuerons but I don't think the other way round.Our perceptions make up our mind and the way it propagates.And some social-negative actions under the abnormal mindset of certain people is a topic in which serious talking need to be invested and quality analysis need to be made.

from:  R.sri Rohith
Posted on: May 7, 2012 at 08:35 IST

I am surprised! You publish this article while the articles on Religion page repeatedly assert that I is other than body,mind and brain. Obviously, you do not read what you write. The author is apparently reading lot of foreign articles on brain and their views are repeated here. As suggested by Venki, it would be better to consult the other Ganapathy in this regard.

from:  Srinidhi
Posted on: May 7, 2012 at 08:30 IST

in the not distant future a criminal be a rapist or petty thief or even
a murderer may be referred to a neuro surgeon for chemo or electrical or
cell therapy to remove that part which induces him or her into such
actions. PLAY GOD

from:  bala
Posted on: May 7, 2012 at 08:05 IST

I must appreciate The Hindu for carrying such a thoughtful article. As for the magic of the brain, I'm sure there are few people who would have seen it more closely than the author. For those who seek the truth - claim to know the path to truth - claim to know the truth, there is always a higher knowledge awaiting. Those who understand this simple thing - life will always reveal new knowledge. As for the rest, they would only try to bring about others to their point of view because they admit an end to their knowledge and understanding.

from:  S P Jose
Posted on: May 7, 2012 at 02:42 IST

Often we confuse the word 'mind' as though it is a physical entity like 'brain' or 'heart'. In my opinion 'mind' is the curtain our ancients called 'maya'.It fools one to think his importance!It dies along with brain when we die. But 'soul' is everywhere in the body like GOD being everywhere[omnipresent.]'mind' prevents the brain in realising (in the true sense of the word) this fact. Our ability in removing this screen is what is known as 'gnana yogam'. Unfortunately it is a herculean task! Only a philosopher of the caliber of Adi Shankara can do this! Ordinary humans,have to find other ways to achieve this. Your punishment not allowing TV is directly punishes the brain by depriving the pleasure it would have reaped. Hence you indeed punished that smartypant's brain!

from:  Krishnamurthy
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 22:55 IST

Very confusing. Can someone go even deeper to divulge the fact. I think it finally leads to 'who am I' theory of Indian philosophy.

from:  kk p ram
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 21:41 IST

'I' actually is the soul, an indivisible imperishable form of light energy that is self-illuminant and metaphysical. the souls resides in the body in the centre of the head, near the pitutary gland. soul is a complete different entity from the physical body. And every person is neither the brain nor the mind. he/she is the soul and mind and intellects are parts of soul. One can find a wonderful explanation of this at the Brahma Kumaris Rajyoga meditation centre.

from:  shrikumar
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 18:46 IST

Sam Harris, the Stanford University neuroscientist, and Steven Pinker an evolutionary psychologist say that there is hardly any evidence for Freewill. Mother Teresa lived of the poor, she wanted them to remain poor. If she really cared for women she would have empowered women but she did none of that. She advised them against contraception and abortion! The two important things that empowers women and gives them greater control over their lives.

from:  PNS Aiyer
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 18:12 IST

Dear Prof, Both Bin Laden and Mother Teresa are not very different, one chose a path of physical violence and the other showed her repressed violence by proselytization. Proselytization is psychological violence. I wonder if she would have taken to social work if there was no reward and punishment in her scriptures. I wonder if it was based on compassion. Would a person with genuine compassion serve the poor for God?

from:  P.N.Shreeniwas
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 18:00 IST

Several commenters fault the Professor for not considering a religious or spiritual answer to his question on Free Will. But why should he? Modern science has pretty much converged on the opinion that the mind is the product of the brain and that various concepts of the disembodied supernatural immaterial 'soul' espoused by various religions are at best considered as hypotheses lacking any credible evidence. Some people mention quantum physics as proof of vedantic concepts but that's mistaken too and few mainstream physicists will endorse it. People seem to believe that since quantum physics is strange and spooky and that spirituality is strange and spooky, that they must be talking about the same thing. I believe it's mistaken.

from:  Raamganesh
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 17:47 IST

What a marvelous article it is ! Science can be so easy to be understand like this , wonderful !I appreciate 'The Hindu'.

from:  sunny wakker
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 17:20 IST

As Arvind told his grandfather that he should not be punished for the actions his brain is responsible, so brain should be punished.That is what is happening, it is always brain that gets punished all the time.No part of our body feels pain, anger, depression, humiliation etc except brain. Through nervous system all these signal are transmitted to central nervous system where these signals are felt.

from:  waseem shafi
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 16:47 IST

I am a neuroscientist and I completely agree with the professor. To get more insight into how brain wiring can determine your behaviour, please read the book 'Connectome' by Sebastin Seung. This is written for non-neuroscience people, so anyone can understand.

from:  James Chellliah
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 16:38 IST

I do not fully agree and many probably do not as well. Although brain reacts as a response to energy/electrical stimuli it is wrong to say the brain caused the reaction in the first. It is the energy that caused the brain to act. The energy is the cause and response is the effect. And this is the energy we call it as a aatma (soul). And we know energy permeates our body. Without energy we are nothing but a piece of livingless flesh. One can think of many simple analogies. A piece of iron reacts in the presence of a magnetic field and not outside it. The magnet (soul) is the cause and the behavior of the iron (brain) is the effect.

from:  Sunil Iyengar
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 16:18 IST

well,what you have said is agreed by me...i want to share something... I'm doing an assessment period of mine in our college,i had told that ALBERT EINSTEIN is mad...actually,not only ALBERT EINSTEIN but all the Nobel laureates are mad...i gave a reason that we have a normal brain with a normal thinking...but like the scientists i.e like Einstein who thought something extra-ordinary..what we said to a mad people that they are abnormal...because of some unrealistic thinking,when Einstein discovered that physics cannot be based on the field concept,i.e,on continuous structures, at that time almost no one listened to him...they that time considered him in the list of mad,but few years/decades later, the scientist are using his concept and after that time he known to, it means,he has some extra-ordinary thinking or in case of our normal brain we considered him as in d list of abnormal or with due respect,in a simple word mad..extra-ordinary thinking = abnormal = mad...

from:  Benita
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 16:16 IST

The statement "You become a Mother Teresa or Bin Laden because of your pre-determined genetic profile, the way your brain is wired and neurotransmitters jump across synapses." seems to be a generalisation. I guess it stands to reason that both the corporeal substance (brain) and the incorporeal substance (mind or spirit) play their own roles in helping us become what we become. In other words, we are a product of our genetic profile, our environment and education, our beliefs and life experiences.

from:  Sreehari Pusuluri
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 15:42 IST

Cells in a human body change their behaviour according to one`s food and mental intakes. A child touches the snake without knowing that it is a snake whereas the grown-ups know its dangers and cry. Hence, apart from human/living beings` cells, there must a soul in some unseen form which control all living beings` activities based on everyone`s intake of food and knowledge. Like we need earth to grow up plants and get their yield, the God may be another elevated form like human beings which need good food (good souls) from all living beings of this earth. By your good behaviour/thoughts/deeds as wanted by the Gods, you may be a good food for his consumption. Otherwise, you will be rejected and reborn till you satisfy his condition. If this is so, God can straight away tell the living beings that I am so and so and I need you all in this form. Perhaps this may not be possible for him as we can not teach an ant or a worm or any other creature that we are human being consuming them.

from:  R.Ganesan.
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 14:28 IST

it is indeed a very complext matter which cannot be understood easily given the fact the we are busy in our material world so much that we hardly have time to delve on such issues.The only thing which stays as always is that one certainly realizes that his unsocial behavious will cause pain or distress - physical or emotional to others - "dont do to others which you want others to do to you".
Quite a few who indulge in anti social behaviour do so due to the inequality that grips the society across the globe.

from:  prem goswami
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 13:31 IST

"You have a soul. It's made of trillions of tiny robots" says philosopher Dan Dennet in his
wonderful book on the topic of free will, Freedom Evolves. I'd recommend that book to
anyone who wants to understand why determinism does not equal inevitability and why
people can be held responsible for their actions even when one accepts a naturalistic and
deterministic world view. Another book that has come our recently on this topic is Free Will
by Sam Harris, though I have not read it yet.

from:  Raamganesh
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 10:41 IST

Very rigthly pointed out is true that we are cause of our
past/early life experiences and our gene maps...but there is a solution
to overcome ones cravings and aversions....though I might be wrong but
most ppl who commit anti-social activities act on impulse and
influence....this tendency indicates that mind is not in sync with the help of vipassana meditation one can gain mastery over
their mind and exercise restraint...just like a reign for a horse
running amok!!

from:  Gupta
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 10:36 IST

I am; therefore I think. Had I not (been), I can not. Schrodinger resorted to his much-maligned cat to postulate. Heisenberg and Einstein debated maya and tattva without calling them as such. Matter, that fundamental basis for science--is it a particle or a wave? Whereas, consciousness simply 'is'.
Quantum mechanics and astrophysics point towards a basis that science would have considered poppycock a century ago. Yet, science and Vedanta both lead us to understand the Truth that is ekam. Om.

from:  Kumar
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 09:52 IST

The author is right in his own way and i would like to differentiate between Brain gender wise, most of the time women are alike in their approach while facing a problem and most men are unique like wise in the same way. So there is some fundamental source reserve between man and woman even before reaching mothers' womb in making the brain i think , here i would like to connect something may be looking mockery , i.e most of the rishis cover the skull with some light colored cloth during sprituality way, and even culprit under the trial also has the same treatment i.e covering the face , of course i am deviating from subject matter, and it is not only in the brian of a female brain, or male brain , in general It is RAM the " RANDOM ACCESS MEMORY " of our Brain which activated even from visit to some places perhaps through our pithrus' souls or Athma, or whatever name may be called and it is good to quote Einsteins ' "space , event , time constraints". at this instant.

from:  Rajasekaran.S
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 09:24 IST

With due respect to the neurosurgeon, I'm in state of shock where he says that the actions of Mother Terasa or bin Laden were pre-determined by their genetic profiles. It is well established that the environment plays a greater role (than previously realized) in building our traits (see epigenetics research). Even the activities such drinking coffee, bIisk exercise or sleep (as small as 20 to 30 minutes) change our DNA structure and hence cause mutations. I think it will be preposterous to blame it on the 'mind' to say that I'm not responsible for my activities where some moral responsibilities are required especially when we don't understand the concept of 'thought' itself.

from:  Shankar
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 04:21 IST

Ganapathy avargale, Neither!!! would be the answer to the question in your title, from most Indian traditions. The brain as a part of the body is an instrument. The body is a temporary abode, a 'vaasal' to the 'mantira meni' or 'jivan-mukti', in Tamil, as the Siddhars would say. The mind is not the self, either. The self that is awareness itself, the ultimate subject, is not to be confused with the 'manasu', the 'ahankaaram' or the 'buddhi'. The truth, that is evading us as you say, can be attained through 'sadhana', of whatever form that works for us.
I think it would be fruitful for you to interact with another Ganapathy,namely T.N.Ganapathy. Please look him up.

from:  Venki
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 02:55 IST

What an insightful article! Professor asks the eternal question: the nature of existence. In the popular Sci-Fi series Battlestar Galactica, it series starts with the cylon female (human created "robot") asking the human officer in deep space, "are you alive?". What a profound question! On a side note, people like Teresa and Laden can be grouped in the same category, although to be fair not on the same magnitude. I think the Professor wanted to compare good and bad actions; How about someone being like Dr. Borlaug?

from:  S Deshpande
Posted on: May 6, 2012 at 01:37 IST
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