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Mindful : December 2013
December 2013 mindful 33 dendritic hepatocytes have taken over the brain. In another scena rio, a woman ran a red light, either because: a) she was too dis- tracted and depressed by her upcoming divorce to focus on the road, or b) because her sadness about the impending divorce caused her brain lev- els of dopamine to plummet, choking off oxygen to her visual cortex and causing it to process visual information slowly a nd inaccurately. In each case, the condi- tions were made up (neither Huebner’s delirium nor hermatosomes exist), and the only difference between the explanations is that one was psychological (mind) and the other neurological (brain). It was found that neuro- logical expla nations a re more likely tha n psychological ones to make volunteers say the perpetrator was not to blame. The exception is that people really, really resist excusing a loathsome act such as violence or pedophilia by invoking brain chemistry. That, scholars suspect, is because although we’ve all seen the authoritative-look- ing brain maps that label the frontal cortex as the site of the executive functions, and the limbic system as the seat of emotions, and so on, most of us hold tight to the idea that there is something else in there that doesn’t appea r on the map: a “me.” The “me” is what English philosopher Gilbert Ryle derisively called “the ghost in the machine,” an entity that somehow stands apart from the messy physicality of the brain and, being disembodied, is more powerful than what- ever the brain puts out. That “me” is the ultimate decider, the obser ver, the entity that ca n look at the overactivity in the a nterior cingulate gyrus that causes obsessive-com- pulsive disorder and say, Quiet down! Or see the dearth of activity in the medial pre- frontal cortex (site of impulse control) right before we do something rash and bark out, Step it up! Shaun Nichols, a philosopher at the University of Arizona, argues that as long as we believe in a “me” stand- ing apart from the brain that scientists are mapping, we “reject the idea that decisions are produced by deterministic mechanisms and processes.” In answer to the question posed by the title of a 2007 book, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?, we say no. This is by no means the naive belief of the unin- formed. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California– Santa Barbara asserts that there is an “undeniable reality that we a re responsi- ble agents,” as he put it in his 2011 book, Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain . There is a “lingering conviction that we humans have a ‘self’ ma king all the decisions about our actions,” he wrote, and the corollary of that conviction is that this self can step in when we are doing something we shouldn’t and say, Stop! To be sure, there are countless mental phenomena that neuroscientists can’t explain, such as why feel- ings feel the way they do and where imagination comes from, and explaining is a far cry from predicting (as it is with weather). But make no mistake: scientists are pinning down the mechanisms for more and more of what we think, feel, and do, and every discovery leaves less room for “me.” Considering how diminished, even appalled, humankind felt when Coper- nicus shoved Earth from the center of the solar system, one can only imagine how we’ll feel when there’s no “me,” just my brain. ●