Image from Descartes’s ‘Optics: Discourse on methods’ (1639) showing an inverted image

Descartes revisited

The rich and fascinating internal life we experience is being reduced to the product of electrical activity. Does this diminish our view of humanity?

Descartes’s idea that the mind and body are distinct (see ‘Times past’) has been hugely influential. Partly it is because it is such an appealing notion – our sense of self is primarily a mental construct, based on our thoughts and personality, albeit one influenced by our physical form.

The consequences of this division run very deep. Some groups focus on the mind in a holistic, ‘whole-body’ sense: the exact nature of the ‘mind’ is less important than whether it is healthy, fulfilled and so on. How do collections of minds interact socially? Psychologists come at the brain from this direction, and it is the basis of psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

Over the past few decades, though, research has become increasingly dominated by a ‘reductionist’ approach, which seeks to break down complex biological phenomena into smaller pieces that can be analysed and understood.

This approach argues that the mind, whatever it is, is the product of the coordinated activities of brain cells. If we know how neurons work, individually and collectively, we will understand how conscious experience came about. This is the goal of neuroscientists, and the basis of pharmacological treatments of brain disorders, which manipulate brain chemistry to change mood or behaviour.

Although the models are not incompatible, there is a tendency for groups of researchers to work independently of one another. However, answers to the most interesting questions will probably combine both approaches – how does cognitive behavioural therapy affect brain biochemistry? What is the neuroscientific basis of the placebo effect? What cognitive processes underpin social communication?

Understanding humans

It is no longer a fanciful thought that one day we will be able to understand, in entirety and in a scientifically robust manner, all human experience. We still have a long way to go, but even the prospect of that understanding raises intriguing questions.

Some may find this conclusion hard to swallow, finding it difficult to accept that science can ‘explain’ the mysteries of love or morality. Or they may feel that it diminishes human dignity to think of the mind as an excitable neural network.

On the other hand, scientists would point to the extraordinary beauty apparent in the awe-inspiring complexity of the human brain, shaped by four billion years of evolution. Far from diminishing our sense of wonder, it enhances it further.

Lead image:

Wellcome Library, London CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Cell biology, Neuroscience, Psychology, History
Education levels:
16–19, Undergraduate, Continuing professional development