March 12, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Who’s In Control: Your Brain or You?

Do you have a self that controls your brain, or is thought a secretion of the brain, as Darwin claimed?  Do you use your brain, or does your brain operate you?  Who is in charge?  These are deep philosophical questions with a long history, that some people prefer to avoid, as in the common joke:
What is matter?  Never mind.
What is mind?  No matter.

The answer is probably not an either-or proposition, because we know that physical changes in the brain, whether by drugs and injury, can have profound affects on the self – if there is one.  But there is also ample evidence that people can affect their physical brains through choice and will – just as a person can order her arm to rise against the pull of gravity.  Some recent findings suggest that opinions of neuroscientists (for a long time those most tending to physicalism) seem to be shifting back to belief in the existence of a determinative self.

  1. Memory flexibility:  Rats have brains, too, and while humans may not appreciate being compared to them, we might learn some things from the physical aspects of a rat brain.  For one thing, how the brain stores memory is a lot more complicated than the old computer storage model.  Science Daily reported on work at University of Minnesota that shows that “the phenomenon of memory replay is much more [sic] complex, cognitive process that may help an animal maintain its internal representation of the world, or its cognitive map.”
        The hippocampus has long been known to be involved in memory recall.  Rather than just playing back a memory verbatim, the hippocampus provides flexible playback.  “It gives animals the ability to plan novel paths within their environment,” said A. David Redish of the U of Minnesota Medical School.  “This replay process may be an animal’s way of learning how the world is interconnected, so it can plan new routes or paths.”  That almost sounds like the rat is in the driver’s seat, not its brain.  The article spoke plainly about the rat’s “decision-making process.”  The brain was not just playing back a tape recording: “The rats were not just reviewing recent experience to move it to long-term memory,” Science Daily said.  “This is important because brain cognition and the human decision-making process are poorly understood.”  Someone might argue that computers have a decision-making process, too.  Yes—but those processes were programmed by intelligent design.  To claim that animals are capable of decision making while being physical products of evolution would beg the question about physicalism.
  2. Multisensory perception:  If physicalists want to say humans are only animals, they can’t say they are less equipped.  PhysOrg posted an interesting story that said psychologists are finding amazing perceptual abilities in humans thought to be mastered by animals alone.  The article begins with examples:

    Blind mountain bikers use echolocation to hear rocks in the trail.  A connoisseur sniffs out the world’s most expensive cup of coffee.  An artist whose sight disappeared as a young man paints and chooses his colors by touch.
        New research in perceptual psychology and brain science is revealing that our senses pick up information about the world that we thought was only available to other species, Lawrence Rosenblum, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, writes in a new book, “See What I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses” (Norton, 2010), published this month.

    Rosenblum has amassed many examples of people who have compensated for the loss of one sense by developing heightened sensitivity from the other senses, both singly and in combination.  “Brain-imaging and other tools have enabled researchers in the last decade to discover that the human brain is capable of changing its structure and organization – a process called neuroplasticity – as it is influenced by experience.”  Don’t be down on yourself.  You are highly skilled, Rosenblum says: “We all have an onboard sonar system and a type of absolute pitch; and we all can perceive speech from seeing and even touching faces,” he said.  Those abilities can be brought to sharpness by practice.

  3. Forget to remember?  Science Daily delved into the question of why we can remember some things instantly when exposed to a triggering sense, like a smell, but can’t remember other things when we try.  “Science still does not fully understand why” this happens.  Experiments by Kristina Kompus, a Swedish scientist seem to suggest that the instant recall and the slow search-and-retrieval mechanisms are controlled by different regions of the brain.  Her studies “also reveal that our long-term memory is more flexible that was previously believed.  There is not just one single neurological signaling path for reliving old memories but rather several paths that are anatomically separate.”
  4. Hormone assist:  PhysOrg added more thought to the story about testosterone (see 12/09/2009).  Subjects involved in a trading game were actually more rational and fair when they did not know they were given testosterone.  Since women given the hormone without knowledge behaved differently than those who knew, the effects of hormones are more complex than previously thought.
        This raises questions about the uniqueness of the human mind.  How could such an experiment be done on animals?  How would they know what they were given?  How would they have certain expectations that a hormone would produce a certain kind of behavior?  The authors of an article in Nature noted, “biology seems to exert less control over human behavior [than in other animals].”
  5. Self-controlled rehab:  A man in Texas has had difficulties in work because of several traumatic brain injuries, like concussions from falling off a horse when he was young.  He felt discouraged about his prospects for work and living a normal life, PhysOrg said, till he realized at age 42 that he was not a prisoner of his brain injuries.  He heard about “brain plasticity – the concept that the brain can heal and learn at all ages.”  He realized that abilities he thought were gone could be re-learned.  “It was a relief,” he said.  “It helped me regain my self-esteem and self-confidence.  It gave me hope.”  The article then noted, “Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt and change through life, is gaining increased traction in medical circles.”  The author of a book on the subject, Dr. Norman Doidge, calls this “the most important change in our understanding of the brain in four hundred years.” 

    “For the longest time our best and brightest neuroscientists thought of the brain as like a machine, with parts, each performing a single mental function in a single location,” he wrote in an e-mail from the University of Toronto (he also teaches at Columbia University).  “We thought its circuits were genetically hardwired, and formed, and finalized in childhood.”
        This meant that doctors assumed they could do little to help those with mental limitations or brain damage, he says — because machines don’t grow new parts.  The new thinking changes that: “It means that many disorders that we thought can’t be treated have to be revisited.”

    A doctor told of a patient who suffered a massive stroke.  In five weeks he went from coma to paralysis to walking out of the hospital.  “The brain has the amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells,” he said.
        Dr. Sandra Chapman is founder of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas.  She remarked, “Our brain is one of the most modifiable parts of our whole body.”  Think about that.  It means that intentional thought for the brain might just be as important as exercise for the body.  She advises taking a “neck-up checkup” to find areas needing improvement: such as learning how to focus, learning how to reason, learning how to create.  These skills can be improved with targeted exercises.  For those of us getting older (100% of humans), it also means we don’t have to look ahead to hopeless decline, but can actually maintain or improve mental skills as we age.  “People in their 80s and 90s can do incredible things,” Chapman said.  “They may do them a little bit slower, but they can do them at a much deeper level.”
        The article said “It’s possible that the connections that the brain makes may become even more profound with age.”  If so, do they just result in more profound secretions of the brain, or do they provide a self with better tools?

  6. The scientific brain:  Some experiments done at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research seem to show that humans are hard-wired to think scientifically.  Our brains are comfortable with predictable outcomes, but strain at unpredictable ones.  PhysOrg said, “This suggests that the brain’s main job, alike [sic] that of a scientist, is to generate hypotheses about what is going on in the outside world.”  Do we all have a little scientist in our head?  “At present the idea of the scientific brain is rapidly spreading through the neuroscience community and provides a novel approach to resolving how the most complex organ of the human body works,” the article ended.
  7. Control your cortex:  Scientists can observe brain waves that predict how someone will feel days after a marital spat.  But do the brain waves determine this, or are the waves a product of the spouse’s control?  Science Daily reported on work at Harvard reported in Biological Psychiatry that seemed to show that “brain activity – specifically in the region called the lateral prefrontal cortex – is a far better indicator” than common wisdom about not going to bed angry “of how someone will feel in the days following a fight with his or her partner.”  The more neural activity seen in the lateral prefrontal cortex, the more forgiving the partner was likely to be.  But what does that mean?
        Dr. Christine Hooker “also found that those who had more activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex and greater emotional regulation after a fight displayed more cognitive control in laboratory tests, indicating a link between emotion regulation and broader cognitive control skills.”  So while the brain waves might serve as a predictor of those most vulnerable to emotional stress after a fight, it doesn’t mean the subject is a victim of her or his brain waves.  It could mean the opposite – that the moral traits a person has learned can be observed in brain waves, just like the choices one makes in a diet are visible in the waistline.  “Scientists believe that what we are looking at in the scanner has relevance to daily life, but obviously we don’t live our lives in a scanner,” noted Hooker.  Relevance is a commutative property.  She could have said, “Our daily lives have relevance to what we see in the scanner.”
  8. Train your brain:  According to Science Daily, we can choose to remodel our brains.  Researchers at the University of Goldsmiths London observed neuroplastic changes as a result of brainwave training.  They “demonstrated that half an hour of voluntary control of brain rhythms is sufficient to induce a lasting shift in cortical excitability and intracortical function.”  The article continued, “Remarkably, these after-effects are comparable in magnitude to those observed following interventions with artificial forms of brain stimulation involving magnetic or electrical pulses.”  It means that painful and risky physical interventions (drugs, electric shock, etc.) could be replaced with a more “natural way” to modulate cerebral plasticity through “inner control of one’s own brain activity”.  The finding has “important implications for future non-pharmacological therapies of the brain and calls for a serious re-examination and stronger backing of research on neurofeedback,” the article said.  Inner control; is that the same thing as self control?

Advocates of intelligent design are most often philosophical dualists – those who accept a mental (or spiritual) reality in addition to a physical reality.  It appears these studies and others like them are giving them fodder for their case.  Denyse O’Leary, co-author of The Spiritual Brain, discussed some of these findings in a podcast for ID the Future.  For more news about the brain, see the 02/21/2010 entry.

It’s nice to see secular neuroscientists entertaining thoughts again about the actual existence of a self that can control the body.  But there’s a shortcut to tipping the debate in favor of dualism.  Ask them, when they are thinking about the question, who is doing the thinking?  To be consistent in their physicalism, they would have to deny their own selves.  This would be a self-refuting position that would give the dualist interlocutor opportunity to call the debate.  Like Dr. Greg Bahnsen used to taunt his opponent, merely showing up at the debate proved his point.
    Each of the stories above makes sense in the light of creation, and only in the light of creation (the top-down approach that assumes intelligent design), on two grounds: (1) the alternative is self-refuting, and (2) our uniform experience shows that decision-making entities (robots, software) are products of a mind.  It may not answer all the mysteries we have about the mind-body problem (e.g., what happens to the self when an aging person shows dementia, the differences between animal and human mental states, the interactions of soul and brain, what happens during sleep, why do we recall things when not concentrating on them, etc.), but it is a self-consistent framework in which to provide useful employment to the little scientist in your head.  Otherwise, what’s the point of the sign over the businessman’s desk? – “THINK.”

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