Think Bomb

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Brain Behind the Mind: The Biological Basis of Character and Emotion

Seeing the Brain as Mind: A Slippery Can of Worms
Few would argue today that the brain is not a thought processing organ, and yet the idea of the brain being the physical basis for our feelings and personality—-the root of what we consider "self"—-is still forbidden fruit. Too suggest that one's character and drive reside in mere cortical connections, too reduce a feeling as grand and consuming as love to chemicals and synapses, is insulting to us as human beings because it seems to demystify the concepts. Rene Descartes (at right) thought the physical body was connected to the soul via the pineal gland. The "mind" and "body" were two distinct components of a person. In the book Descartes' Error (which will be used extensively throughout this essay), Antonio Damasio suggests that the mind is not "reduced" when it is put in the context of the brain. We only consider it insulting because we do not fully understand the wonder, plasticity, and complexity of the brain. This distinction between mind and brain, in some cases, can even be damaging. Individuals with neurologically driven mental illnesses are still condemned in the public eye instead of given the compassion one might give to an individual with a disorder of any other organ like the heart or kidney. Demasio (1994) wrote of the mind-brain distinction:

"The distinction between disease of the 'brain' and 'mind,' between 'neurological' problems and 'psychological' ones, is an unfortunate cultural inheritance that permeates society and medicine." (pg 40)

The public disapproval of the idea that the mind and brain are so intimately linked perhaps arises from a fear that this indicates a lack of control over ones mind since it is the product of a physical brain. This is not so. The mind—-our thoughts, our feelings, and our personality-—are direct products of brain activity. At the same time though, the brain is a direct product of our mind. Thoughts are what create neural networks in the ever changing, plastic brain. Consider the act of studying. If one wants to learn something, one reads and practices those thoughts until eventually they "stick." These acts are literally changing the landscape of the physical brain. With every thought, synapses are modified and neurons are changed to become more or less receptive to the firings of their neighbors. It is not so scary now to think of the mind and brain as one, when we realize we are still in control.

Character in the Brain
Character is one trait that is often not associated directly with the physical brain, but just as speech, vision, and movement have their places in the brain, so too does character. Imagine an individual who displays no defect in intelligence, memory, or perception, but has lost any interest in work, has become devoid of social sensitivity, and has begun making brash decisions. This individual displays symptoms of a psychological disorder of character called the "Phinease Gage Matrix" (named after the first documented case study whose skull is at left). This so called psychological disorder has true neurological roots. When damage is done directly to the ventromedial sector of prefrontal cortex, this remarkable change in character is observed. There exists a myriad of case studies to support this claim, thanks in part to the cruel practice of prefrontal leucotomy, which was a common place cure for severe anxiety in the 1940s. The practice would cure the anxiety, but left patients with an altered personality often likened to "the mind of a child." This analogy is not inaccurate, as the prefrontal cortex is the last to develop in humans and is usually not complete until the child reaches its teens (Gogtay et al., 2004). Emotional defect and decision making defect often go hand in hand with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Damasio notes that a "...reduction in emotion may constitute an equally important source of irrational behavior" (Damasio, 1994, p. 53). A certain degree of anxiety, it seems, is necessary to keep character in check.

The Brain as the Organ of Emotion
Today it is becoming more acceptable to consider defects in affect as biologically based in the brain. Modern anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills are widely used and target certain neurotransmitters. Damasio argues though that this may not necessarily be a move in the right direction. Damasio (1994) wrote of neurochemistry:

"When it comes to explaining behavior and mind, it is not enough to mention neurochemistry. We must know whereabouts the chemistry is, in the system presumed to cause a given behavior." (p. 77)

For example, serotonin (the lack thereof) is the presumed cause of depression in many individuals. This is not necessarily so, as serotonin is active in many circuits in the brain. It is the lack of serotonin in a few local circuits that can affect whole systems in the complex, interconnected realm of the brain. Even then, Damasio suggests that the environment, body, and mind act in an ever circular relationship to create an overall sense of emotion. There is a continuous relay of stimulus from the brain to the body to the environment and back which makes an emotional state possible. The biofeedback from the muscles involved in such emotional acts as clenched fists or smiling stimulates the brain's response and vice versa. An emotional state then becomes the sum of all factors: thoughts, actions, and the environment.

As much as all of these components are seen in an emotional response, the brain seems to be the very root and a base necessity for emotion to occur. Severe emotional defects result with pointed damage to the brain alone. The prefrontal cortex, for one, is an important connecting point between emotion and decision making. Damage to this area, as previously mentioned, results in the absence of anxiety and other emotional states as well as faulty decision making and poor reasoning. The amygdale is another key player in emotion, especially emotion in connection to leaning and memory due to its association with the hippocampal formation (Davis, 1994). The ventral striatum, especially the nucleus accumbens, is the emotional reward center for the brain (Pecina et al., 2006). The insula is what connects the body’s autonomic responses to emotion with the brain, and helps with the bio-feedback involved with the circular emotive process. All of these structures and others are required for a full emotional experience.

The brain and the mind are an inseparable unit. Together, they interact in a constant circular relationship with the body and environment to produce a sense of wholeness and self. Character and emotion both have their roots in neurological structures. Without these structures, severe defects of character or affect are inevitable.

Works cited
Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York, NW: Penguin Books.

Davis, M. (1994). The role of the amygdale in emotional learning. International Review of Neurobiology, 36, 225-266

Gogtay, N., Giedd, J.N., Lusk, L., Hayashi, K.M., Greenstein, D., Vaituzis, A.C., et al. (2004). Dynamic mapping of human cortical development during childhood through early adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(21), 8174-8179.

Pecina, S., Smith, K.S., & Berridge, K.C. (2006). Hedonic hot spots in the brain. Neuroscientist, 12(6), 500-511.


  • Hope you don't mind; I followed you here from OKCupid.

    I'm sure the mind-brain problem really boils down to omg-free-will-vs-determinism-lol. The people who don't wanna be convinced aren't gonna.

    That in mind, I think the whole issue will be nailed pretty irrefutably shut once computing advances far enough to do simulations of neural processes on a huge enough scale. There's a few good arguments that something quasi-conscious will emerge spontaneously once we've throw enough CPUs ar the issue.

    Forever young,
    Pork Chop Sandwiches.

    By Anonymous mike, at 9:04 PM  

  • er, thrown.

    By Anonymous mike, at 9:05 PM  

  • This means that when we die and our brain dies then so does our mind. I guess we actually don't have an eternal soul and therefore after death there is only the worms.

    By Anonymous Jared, at 11:49 PM  

  • Jared: At least, right now. See

    By Blogger Jake, at 1:34 PM  

  • Your argument here that the brain and mind are equivocal is difficult to refute, and I certainly agree with the stance. However, I must say that you did not clearly present a current opposing viewpoint. You state that opposition to this understanding is a public view, without citing any surveys or offering opposing studies. Since you are using Descartes' theories as a basis of this argument, I feel I should add some information regarding him.

    Though I agree with your arguments, I also have other insights regarding the topic of the mind and brain connection as it relates to the issue of consciousness. Specifically, I feel your granularity in analysis does not sufficiently support your argument or address current theories, and will elaborate as such.

    Descartes' ideas on the mind and brain connection have certainly been disproved since, but were also extremely progressive in the historical context. Much of Descartes' most progressive work (read into his Treatise on the World) was not published out of fear of persecution (remember he was a scientist in the age of Galileo). This historical context presents excessive pressure to link all scientific theory and philosophical musings to a connection with God, as may be evidenced by his offering that the pineal gland is the bodily connection to the essence of the non-corporeal soul. Modern theories regarding the mind and brain connection eschew this idea in favor of relations to consciousness and free will.

    The mind and brain connection is now under analysis to address free will and the role of consciousness. Yes, it is understood that the brain is the physical implement of processeses that reflect character, emotion, and self.

    You argue that the results of modification to brain chemicals and physical connections upon character and emotion reflect a clear connection between the mind and brain, but I have not seen that idea refuted in recent literature. Rather, the discussion focuses on what depth our consciousness allows in our power over affect and character. To illustrate, a recent article in the New York Times on the topic of Free Will and Consciousness has citations from a number of scientists in the field regarding recent studies worth reading: Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t.

    ... and agh, I've spent too much time on this and need to get to my other responsibilities. I will leave this as is for now and fully offer you to contact me to discuss this down the road. Quickly concluding: If your intent in publishing the essay here is to offer a refute to what you feel is a commonly perceived dualistic view that the mind and brain are not causally linked, then I believe you've made a succesful endeavor in offering some evidence of causation, but have not properly addressed the effect on free will and consciousness.

    By Blogger Bondrake, at 7:33 PM  

  • You have pretty much summed up how i think the mind works... while i may not be the brightest bulb in the box, or understand this kind of thing as much as most, it seems to me that the brain works more like a computer's memory--the physical "grey matter" is merely a means to store our personality, soul, etc whatever you may call it. In theory, if you had another storage medium that could house a person's essence, you could achieve a sort of immortality by simply transferring into another body, or a mechanical version of one.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:34 PM  

  • i found this blog exceptionally intrigueing. i will have to read it again to understand it more clearly though. there's a book i just found the other day called "on intelligence" written by jeff hawkins which i look forward to reading. check it out and tell me what you think. i'm kinda new to the neuro-subjects and it's amazing to stumble across someone who also finds it interesting.

    By Anonymous djMidknight, at 2:37 AM  

  • I agree with the comments above. You have taken Cartesian dualism somewhat out of context, and in my humble opinion, the distinct lack of philosophical inquiry causes the intro to be somewhat misleading. I believe it was Ryle who came up with the metaphor of 'the ghost in the machine', saying that Cartesian dualism could be thought of as the mind being an ethereal entity of some sort residing in the ambulatory body. And why is this not true? I believe that in Descartes' original treatise, when a limb is severed, the 'mind' in that limb doesn't 'escape' but this mind reconstitutes itself inside the body. And why can this not be a rational argument against your point (which, as I said, is somewhat unclear): in a similar manner that if circulation is lost in an appendage, blood cannot carry the proper nutrients to it (i.e. it is cut off), why can one not say that damage to parts of the brain does not allow the mind (whatever this entity happens to be) to carry signals to and from it? This would appear to me to fit. In order to take on such a criticism, you would need to go more into detail about what exactly you mean by 'mind', do the 'products' of neuronal inputs (i.e. the non-material 'signal' rather than the acetylcholine(? my bio is a bit rusty) that carries it) constitute part of the mind? Are only pure 'thoughts' allowed (I believe Descartes himself wrestled with the question of what exactly constituted 'mindful' things). For to say 'well you all know what I mean by 'mind'' is akin to saying, for example, 'well you all know what I mean be God' though i.e a monotheist and a pantheist would have two quite different conceptions of this entity 'God' and what it entailed. And this is only the tip of the iceberg... The 'can of worms' that you speak of seems more feasibly to be what you have opened by trying to put this topic into context with a few biological examples here and there. It is naive to think that this is enough to whisk the problem at hand under the carpet and count its resolution as complete...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:26 AM  

  • mike:
    and I think the whole paradigm of materialism will be put into question when computing advances far enough to do simulations of neural processes on a huge enough scale, and yet consciousness doesn't, erm, "appear."
    obviously, determinists and materialists will assume there's something subtly wrong with the programming so that it's not emulating correctly. if nothing else, they'll speculate it's a problem of precision: since computers are digital you can never know if that tiny bit of analog precision that was lost is what makes the difference, especially in a system like the brain. so it won't necessarily change much, it depends on how much thinking will have changed since then.

    to the blog:
    re demystification: there's no attachment to believe in mysticism in regard to our essence except in that it keeps an open mind against the mechanical assimilation patterns of materialism. other than that, mysticism represents the unknown and people don't really like the unknown. they would prefer a simple realism, which in this case is to simply believe in the known, the known of what know ourselves to be. it's simply not a knowledge of material patterns. so demystification isn't the problem.

    "We only consider it insulting because we do not fully understand the wonder, plasticity, and complexity of the brain."

    plasticity and complexity aren't good enough attributes to redeem the reduction to brain. those attributes are meaningless compared to life, they're simply properties of things objects do. and 'wonder' is claptrap there, it's open-ended, yes you can assume there's enough wonder in the brain to make it good enough to be us, but if you're going to assume that you might as well, and might necessarily, assume that the meaning of matter itself includes some sort of awareness/consciousness/divinity. (yes that's the fallacy of the homunculus, which is the point.)

    "his distinction between mind and brain, in some cases, can even be damaging. Individuals with neurologically driven mental illnesses are still condemned in the public eye instead of given the compassion one might give to an individual with a disorder of any other organ like the heart or kidney."

    if you have to see a person as a material object in order to have compassion for them then the purpose is defeated. compassion and condemnation apply to personalities as we understand them. you can't understand a person, such that you can have compassion or condemnation for them, as a brain, so to update your relation to them based on neurological knowledge is to artificially distort the premises of compassion and condemnation. if you're going to do that, just have compassion for everyone and condemn no one because everything has a reason. even if a person is evil, either there was a reason he became that way or he was just made that way which isnt his fault either. (or it's random, and how can you be blamed for randomness?) the neurological disorder is simply an example of a reason. so what i'm saying is compassion and condemnation applies to what we are as personalities and how we've decided that personalities would interact, not what the causes of the personalities are or what's under the covers. so the very idea suggested implies a basic confusion about the implications of trying to reduce mind to brain.
    -yes, we should have compassion for people with mental illnesses, just because. you might not have compassion for everything, but if you're a good and understanding person you'll have compassion for that. having mental problems means a lot of suffering and doesnt necessarily mean an intention to do bad.
    -i admit there is some leeway to the principle. if the suggestion were to forgive all wrongdoings because they're brainstates, my argument would definitely apply. perhaps within certain margins it makes sense to see someone differently if something is neurological. you'd have to know where to draw the line between what represents their essence and what's acting against their highest intentions. (so what i said about confusion doesnt necessarily hold.)

    "The public disapproval of the idea that the mind and brain are so intimately linked perhaps arises from a fear that this indicates a lack of control over ones mind since it is the product of a physical brain. This is not so. The mind—-our thoughts, our feelings, and our personality-—are direct products of brain activity."

    material is understood to behave according to laws that leave no room for deviation. so the disapproval could be about not believing that free will can be deterministic. of course, with quantum mechanics there is room for deviation, but then you assume the 'wonder' of the brain includes free will as an axiom or external source, or else your free will is merely *effects* of quantum perturbations in addition to being determined, which doesnt help. even if free will could be accepted to be deterministic, i'd rather it be the unfolding of spiritual laws than material laws. (if mind reduces to brain, then 'brain is a direct product of mind' reduces to 'brain is a direct product of brain'.)

    medications to treat depression treat symptoms, not causes. perhaps in some rare case depression could be caused by a freak accident of chemical imbalance, but if you think about it, can't you imagine psychological and situational causes for depression? and the psyche is a complex thing. whether you think it's an abstraction of brain or not, it's a complex thing, which means the causes for depression can be complex (and different from person to person). yet curing it revolves around changing some ratios of chemicals in the brain, which is a very simple alteration (and it does nothing to affect a person's possibly unfortunate external situation)...too simple. let's say Tracy is depressed because her parents abused her and now she's too closed in and afraid to get close to people. is the appropriate response to that really chemicals? even if that's the best response available, it's a hack. if she were able to have carl jung or sai baba as a psychologist, he might be able to heal her in a way that seems more appropriate for the causes. not everyone has identifiable causes for depression, but the reasons for depression dont even have to be that obvious. the entire culture is set up wrong, which is something we don't see because we're a part of it. wage slavery, economic necessity, perception of separation from eachother which builds conflict, barriers, isolation, control, etc., unhealthy food, what else can i list. it's no wonder so many people are depressed. it's not a genetic glitch that causes people's brains to have chemical imbalances. but yes, i'm sure a serotonin imbalance (for example) may be *associated* with depression. people confuse that for being the cause or essence of it. antidepressents cure the disease by killing the patient - subtly. something youd never notice via the scientific method, of course.

    By Blogger Richard, at 10:11 PM  

  • Richard-
    This article "The Brain Behind the Mind" was something I wrote up for a class discussing Demasio's book "Descartes' Error." The author contends that it is crucial to examine the biology in addition to the psychology regarding mental disorders, not that we should treat mental illnesses solely with drugs. He actually suggests that counseling is the best cure for mild depression, because, as I wrote in the article, "our own thoughts shape our physical brain."
    I think you have misinterpreted my writing, in this case.

    By Blogger Kim Russo, at 11:49 AM  

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