There Is No Such Thing as “The Brain”

I’m an avid subscriber to Dr. Ginger Campbell’s wonderful Brian Science Podcast. I have my Flipboard set to capture brain news. When time allows, I rummage around Google Scholar for obscure neuroscience studies. In sum, I’m one of a swelling population of brain science junkies.

So it’s a bit troubling to notice a weird proposition floating around my head: “There is no brain.”

At first, I found the idea too stupid to consider. It’s refuted by every anatomy book on the planet. The brain, we all know, is the most complex object in the known universe. It’s quickly becoming one of the best funded, too, with unlimited money sloshing around university departments, high-tech startups, private foundations and the secret warrens of the military industry. How could anyone doubt the brain’s existence? Presumably, only someone who doesn’t have one.

The Lure of Categories

But step back a moment. Consider how categories form, and how they do their work in language and thought. We divide the cake of reality into slices we can name. These slices then appear self-evident. A cat is not a dog. Stars are not planets. France isn’t Spain. In the process, we forget our own role in drawing the boundaries around the objects we distinguish. The categories that seem so blindingly obvious to us are not, in fact, inevitable.

Here’s a list of animals attributed to an ancient Chinese encyclopedia by the great Argentinian storyteller and essayist Jorge Luis Borges:  

“Those that belong to the emperor; embalmed ones; those that are trained; suckling pigs; mermaids (or sirens); fabulous ones; stray dogs; those that are included in this classification; those that tremble as if they were mad; innumerable ones; those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush; et cetera; those that have just broken the flower vase; those that, at a distance, resemble flies.”

Borges’ invention reminds us what every anthropologist knows, that our categories are constructions, not objective realities.

In the case of the brain, there’s a purely anatomical boundary that’s not worth arguing with. What makes the brain an object of fascination (and finance) is the meaning we give to it. In recent years, that meaning has been expanding at a frightening rate. The brain is acquiring the status of the Great Explanation. Ask about any human emotion, behavior, dilemma, or delusion and the answer comes back, in some form or other: “It’s the brain, stupid.”  Ginger Campbell captures this perfectly when she promotes her podcast as the one that shows us “how our brains make us human.”

Really? Our brains “make us human”? This is not a scientific statement, being neither testable nor refutable. It’s a religious belief, a mythic romance, a philosophical whimsy. We seem to be entering the era of brain-worship.

Bodies and Brains

The most significant challenge to this adulation of “the brain” is coming from the field called “embodied cognition” (which I first learned about from Dr. Campbell). That’s a fancy phrase for pointing to the obvious: brains don’t float around in space, linked to the world by a biological Bluetooth.  They are rooted in the flesh-and-blood organism we call the human body. The essential idea of embodied cognition is that you can’t understand “the brain” apart from the body of which it is a part and the world in which this body operates. Together, they form an inseparable unity.

This is what makes sense of the apparently crazy statement, “the brain does not exist.” Of course the brain exists as an anatomical convenience: a sector of the human body with specific structural, electrical and biochemical properties. What does not exist is “the brain” as a vast, independent and self-sufficient cause of all things human.

So where does this leave me? I’ll continue to relish the latest neuro-news, and I’ll celebrate the day when all that massive funding turns into a cure for Alzheimer’s. But I refuse to idolize “the brain” as the new Truth of the human condition. Reality (as Borges knew better than most) is more dimensional, more mysterious, and more fun than that.

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